Russian agents allegedly tried to hack lab associated with Skirpal poisoning investigation

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been elbows-deep in the investigation of the Novichok nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skirpal. As part of their investigation into where the nerve agent may have originated, the OPCW sent samples of the chemical weapon to a number of independent labs.

Using multiple labs provides a fail safe against false positive results and bias – two things you'd want to avoid considering the fact that the results of the tests could trigger a significant international incident. One of the labs that the OPCW may have used (I mean, they're not going to come right out and say that this is where they're sending dangerous shit) was Switzerland's Spiez Laboratory. Since Russia has denied that it had any role in the poisoning of the Skirpals and the other collateral victims of the Novichok attack, it's really really surprising to be surprised by the surprise expulsion of two Russian intelligence agents (surprise!) from The Hague, where OPCW is based. Apparently, they were trying to tinker with Spiez Laboratory's computers.

From NPR:

Swiss and Dutch authorities did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. Andreas Bucher, a spokesperson for Spiez Laboratory, also declined to comment on the deportations. However, he confirms the laboratory's computer systems have been probed by unknown hackers in recent months.

"We've had indications that we were in the crosshairs," Bucher says. No data has been stolen from the lab, he adds.

Although Spiez Laboratory has not officially acknowledged receiving a sample, it is widely believed to have done so, according to Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons expert based in France.

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Kim Jong-un’s brother killed with poison spray at airport

In olden times, kings and queens had royal poisoners on hand to get rid of inconvenient people. They were good at what they did. For example, they could lightly dust a letter or page of a book with a powder that would kill whoever touched it.

Politically-motivated poisoning is back in vogue. New York reports that "Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in a Malaysian airport Monday after he was sprayed in the face with an unknown liquid, police said Tuesday."

The oldest son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was seen as the heir apparent in North Korea throughout the 1990s. But that reportedly changed after he was caught with a forged Dominican passport in 2001 as he was trying to sneak his way into Japan to attend Tokyo Disneyland. The subsequent fallout from that incident led to Kim Jong-un’s grooming to take over for the Dear Leader.

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Russian doctors "puzzled" over symptoms of Putin critic in a life-threatening coma

Vladimir Kara-Murza works for the pro-democracy group Open Russia and is openly critical of Putin's policy of assassinating people he isn't fond of. Last week Kara-Murza hospitalized with organ failure on the day he was to travel to the United States. He has been diagnosed with "acute intoxication by unidentified substance" and is in a life-threatening coma.

From the NYTimes:

On the Fox program, Mr. Trump said he respected Mr. Putin and hoped Russia and the United States could join forces to defeat Islamic terrorism. The host, Mr. O’Reilly, responded: “He’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.” It was unclear whether the characterization referred to the unsolved assassination of dissidents, muckraking journalists and opposition politicians or allegations of war crimes in Syria, Ukraine or Chechnya.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters Monday that the description was “unacceptable, insulting.”

The Soviet Union operated a secret laboratory to research untraceable poisons that were tested on condemned gulag prisoners, security service defectors have said.

Image by Leonidalekseev (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 2015 Kara-Murza was hospitalized for two weeks for similar symptoms. Read the rest

Why did 31 people suddenly die in a Pakistan village? A horrible mystery solved

In India and Pakistan, the variety of traditional sweets prepared for special occasions seems infinite. One popular treat is laddu (or ladoo), sweet little sugary carb balls. They're basically cookies, and they're munched at big celebrations--weddings, births, and the like. Read the rest

Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history

Twenty-one children died in India yesterday after eating school lunch food that had been contaminated with insecticide. Authorities are still investigating what happened there, but the Generation Anthropocene podcast has a related episode I wanted to point you towards in the meantime. It's about the struggle to understand the causes behind the largest mass poisoning in history, which began in Bangladesh in the 1980s and is still happening. The 25-minute podcast covers the work of the epidemiologists, doctors, and geologists who figured out that the skin lesions and organ damage affecting millions of Bangladeshis were caused by arsenic ... and then uncovered where all that arsenic was coming from. Read the rest