15 September 2020

FOI confirms German results on Novichok

Swedish expertise in analysing nerve agents and other chemical weapons is concentrated in FOI’s CBRN Division.

Reseacher working with a machine

Photo: FOI.

“I can confirm that we at FOI in Umeå have conducted an analysis on behalf of our German partners,” says Dr Åsa Scott, Head of the CBRN Protection and Security Division. Sampling, transport and analysis have been carried out under a strict chain of custody, following procedures in accordance with FOI’s status as an accredited laboratory.

“Our analysis confirms the earlier German results. The blood sample from Mr. Navalnyj did unequivocally contain a nerve agent from the Novichok group,” adds Dr Scott.

FOI’s CBRN laboratories and capacities

FOI holds the Swedish national capacity to analyse and verify the occurrence of chemical, biological and radioactive agents in all types of samples. FOI’s facility in Umeå includes the only Swedish laboratory that is specialised in the analysis of chemical warfare agents. This analytical capacity includes the safeguarding of the sample’s chain of custody, including the correct collection of samples and ensuring that no external factors can influence the samples during their transport and analysis.

The documentation regarding the handling of samples is ongoing, according to specific routines and in accordance with FOI’s international accreditations. The C-laboratory is also internationally designated to work for the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Analysis and verification of nerve agents

The use of poisonous substances such as nerve agents or other chemical weapons can be verified in several ways. It could be through analysis of so-called environmental samples of soil, air, water or swipe samples that may have been exposed, or by analysis of human biomedical samples of, for example, urine and/or blood.

In a somewhat simplified description of verification by blood analysis, the procedure is as follows: a blood sample from a person who is suspected of exposure to a nerve agent is collected. Blood contains proteins. A nerve agent reacts with and binds to these proteins: this is what makes nerve agents so poisonous. But, this same protein binding is what makes it possible to use blood samples to verify that the person has been exposed to a nerve agent.

Proteins are built as a long sequence of amino acids. By extracting the proteins from the blood, and then dividing the protein into shorter amino acid sequences, it is then possible to use a special technique, called liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (shortened as LC-MS/MS), to analyse patterns in precisely the part of the protein that the nerve agent has binded to. Different nerve agents give rise to different patterns. Based on the pattern from the protein from the blood sample, one can determine exactly which nerve agent the person has been exposed to.