As It Happens

Nerve agent used on ex-Russian spy points to 'professional attack,' expert says

A Russian ex-spy and his daughter were likely attacked by a trained professional using a state-made nerve agent smuggled into the U.K., a chemical weapons expert says.
Sergei Skripal looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court in Russia, on Aug. 9, 2006. (Yuri Senatorov/Kommersant/Reuters)

Story transcript

A Russian ex-spy and his daughter fighting for their lives in an English hospital were most likely attacked by a trained professional using a state-made nerve agent, says a biochemical military expert.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the southwest England city of Salisbury on Sunday, triggering a police investigation led by counter-terrorism detectives.

A police officer who treated the pair at the scene is also in serious condition.

Police said Wednesday a nerve agent was used in the attack, but did not specify which kind. 

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon — a former commanding officer at the U.K.'s chemical, biological and nuclear regiment — told As It Happens host Carol Off how nerve agents work and what its discovery means for the case.

Here is part of that conversation.

What does it say to you that Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent?

It's quite shocking.

Nerve agents are not something you can knock up in your back shed.

This hints that it's probably from a state-run facility that has made this and delivered it.

Police officers stand outside the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury, England, on Wednesday near where the ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill. (Associated Press)

How it is it administered? How do people get this substance into them?

Usually, when these chemical weapons are delivered, it's either ingested through the skin or inhaled or even swallowed, so one doesn't know.

Usually they are fatal very, very quickly. The fact that these people are still living is a positive, which suggests maybe they had a smaller dose, or the nerve agent used was either very old or had lost some toxicity. 

These people are probably in the best place in the world being only a few miles from Porton Down, one of the leading toxicology labs in the world and also one of the leading places for medical countermeasures for this type of thing.

Do you have to know what you're doing or can anybody who is trying to get at a target know how to handle it with a little bit of instruction?

You can't handle nerve agents unless you know what you're doing. So I think this, again, points toward a very professional attack here. 

This is not something you can pick off the streets and use. Nerve agents are deadly and, in most cases, are fatal.

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley and Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies arrive to give a statement in Salisbury on Wednesday about the poisoning investigation. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

So you need to have some sort or special laboratory — and those are usually under the control of governments, aren't they?

Entirely, yes. 

You need a sophisticated laboratory and highly qualified scientists to do this sort of thing.

And would you need to smuggle it into the U.K., or is it something that could be attained in Britain?

I don't think you could attain this in Britain. No, absolutely it would need to be smuggled in. There are very few places it's available.

I expect it was smuggled in. I expect it was a very small quantity. We're probably talking millilitres ... possibly half a litre at most, which wouldn't be difficult to smuggle into any country.

A police car is taped off outside Salisbury District Hospital where Skripal and his daughter were taken. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The authorities are warning of a possible public health issue. They're saying to anybody who was in that area near these restaurants and shops where they were found, that anyone who's feeling unwell ... should report immediately to a hospital.  What are the public health issues here? 

I expect they are minimal, but quite rightly the authorities aren't taking any risks.

There is always a secondary contamination issue with nerve agents.

If anyone does feel ill, they should report to medical staff, because there are very effective countermeasures to nerve agents that will provide effective treatment if people go in a timely manner.

If it is left, that's where it becomes more dangerous.

And what about the police officer who responded to the scene and is now in serious condition? How would he have been exposed to it?

Probably by secondary contamination, as I expect the daughter was as well.

Not knowing what the agent was and what the reason, I'm sure the police officer went very bravely in to help and sadly would have been contaminated.

Hopefully, he has been given the antidote and being treated and, you know, hopefully he will survive.

— With files from Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.