University of Bath

Understanding the lab analysis of the Salisbury poisoning: where the technical meets the political

This seminar will examine the methods used to analyse samples from the incident and how results can be used to provide misleading suggestions of what occurred.

11 May 20181.15pm
11 May 20182.05pm
Police line tape with a police car in the background
The recent Salisbury poisoning sets the scene for an interesting case study of the tensions between needs for confidentiality and needs for transparency in international investigations

Following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in early March, the UK Government asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to confirm its identification of the agent, commonly known as a "Novichok". The OPCW is the body established by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty with the aim of achieving a chemical-weapon-free world.

OPCW inspectors visited the UK and took a number of samples from relevant locations and from individuals affected by the poison. These were then dispatched by the OPCW laboratory to a number of accredited laboratories around the world. Broader political debates about the OPCW would quickly bleed into the discussion and presentation of Laboratory findings. For example, one senior Russian diplomat would even erroneously claim that another toxin had been found in the OPCW samples, and that this had not been reported. This came in the context of a number of debates about the source of the agent which were framed in technical terms.

In this seminar, Richard Guthrie will provide an overview of the technical issues involved in the methods used by the OPCW for sampling and analysis in investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons. Brett Edwards will then discuss the 'narrative-wars' which have surrounded these technical processes.