October 29, 2002



A writer for the Washington Times suggests the drug was etorphine. The writer goes on to suggest the Russians should have used BZ, which only shows he doesn't know what he's talking about... BZ takes so long to kick in you know you're being gassed, which makes it rather useless as a calmative for a suicidal bomb-laden terrorist. What was remarkable and key about the Russian drug was its fast action, which BZ does not have.

Okay, so we've established the writer's not an expert. (Neither am I, frankly.) But what of his theory, that the compound in question was etorphine? It's not a bad guess, actually. Here's one way to look at opioids. (For those wanting a crash course in the biochemistry involved, this page was a good refresher for me.) If you give Demerol a strength factor of "1", then the morphine and the synthetic morphiates can be rated comparatively, which gives you something like this:

Demerol 1
Morphine 5
Fentanyl 1000
Piminodine 1880
Etorphine 5000

Now when we left this before, it seemed clear that while the hostage symptoms were becoming more and more consistent with a strong opioid like fentanyl, fentanyl's onset time was too slow for the job. Increasing the strength would solve that problem, and produce the kind of instant knockouts that were seen. I had suggested some kind of new "super-fentanyl," at least piminodine strength if not stronger. But etorphine would fit that bill nicely, too, in fact. So I believe it's accurate to say at this point, as more and more information comes out that the idea etorphine was used, if not the answer, is at worst an extremely good guess. If it wasn't etorphine, it was a previously little known drug that acts almost exactly like it.

I'd apologize for previous less accurate guesses, but this is the scientific method at work here. The hypothesis keeps changing because the available evidence does. At least I'm still a couple steps ahead of the National Post, which is still pushing the "valium gas or maybe BZ" story this morning, which I think we've pretty conclusively disproved.

UPDATE: The Russians have confirmed the gas was an unspecified extra-strength derivative of fentanyl. So the Times is wrong and Flit's earlier wild-assed guess turned out to be correct. (I'm only giving myself half a point this time because as you can read it took me a few hours to realize there might be another way besides nerve agents to knock someone out instantly: still, as far as predictions go, we're having a good month, it seems.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:47 AM