‘No way’ nerve agent could escape UK lab? Russia demands info on Porton Down toxin research
The origin of the mysterious nerve agent, used on March 4 to poison former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, has been the main point of contention in the unraveling international scandal. While Britain claims that the alleged A-234 nerve agent – also known as Novichok – was a Soviet development and thus could only have been used by Russia, Moscow contends that the chemical has since been studied by numerous parties and could have been re-engineered elsewhere, including in the UK itself.
Last week, in an interview with the BBC, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, noted that a secret military research lab at Porton Down, which is located roughly seven miles from the scene of the incident, could have manufactured the deadly agent. Among its other military-related research, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) specializes in Chemical, Biological and Radiological warfare.
In an attempt to refute the claim, which challenges the British narrative of the Skripal case, the BBC visited the DSTL research lab, where Chief Executive Gary Aitkenhead firmly denied that any deadly nerve agents could have escaped the “four walls” of the military facility.
“We would not be allowed to operate if we had lack of control that could result in anything leaving the four walls of our facility here,” Aitkenhead told BBC on Friday. “There’s no way that agent would have left. We have complete confidence that nothing could have come from here out into the wider world.”
The wording of the statement by the lab’s chief executive, however, suggests the military research facility is indeed involved in manufacturing deadly agents, the Russian embassy in London noted, pointing out that Aitkenhead also failed to deny DSTL’s possession of the 'Novichok' nerve agent.
“This amounts to admitting that the secret facility is a place where new components of military-grade poisons are being researched and developed,” the Russian Embassy said in a statement. “Most notably, Mr Aitkenhead did not deny the existence of chemical weapons stocks. Apparently, they include the A-234 agent [of the Novichok family of agents] that, according to official British statements, was used to poison the Skripals.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, during his March 19 interview with German Deutsche Welle (DW), “hinted” that DSTL has stocks of the deadly agent, the Russian mission in London also noted. In fact, Johnson not only hinted, but directly confirmed that the Porton Down laboratory is in possession of 'Novichok'. When asked by DW if DSTL had any chemical “samples” to compare the collected evidence with and back Russian involvement accusations, Johnson replied, “They do.”
Russia has repeatedly dismissed the narrative that the substance, thought to be a Soviet-era invention, was an exclusively Russian “project.” Moscow insists that in post-Soviet times, countries such as the UK, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and even the US studied it and expressed interest in researching and developing the toxin.
The Russian side also repeatedly requested the UK Foreign Office to tone down its hasty speculations and to launch a joint investigation into the case. Earlier this week, OPCW agents arrived in Britain to begin their probe into the March 4 poisoning. On Tuesday, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said that it will take “another two to three weeks to finalize the analysis.”
On Saturday, the Russian embassy reiterated the “demand for full information on the Salisbury poisoning investigation to be provided and for the Porton Down military poisons programme to be fully disclosed.”
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