VX Nerve Agent Incident: Lessons Learned, Best Practices, and the Challenges Ahead


By Dr. Raja Subramanian

The 2017 VX nerve agent incident in Malaysia stands as a poignant demonstration of the catastrophic capability of asymmetrical chemical weapon threats, underscoring the critical necessity for increased attentiveness in averting and addressing such risks, writes Dr. Raja Subramanian.

The use of VX on a high-profile target at Kuala Lumpur International Airport not only led to a tragic loss of life but also brought attention to challenges in security procedures and the handling of threats. This short article will highlight key lessons learned, best practices, and some challenges ahead.

Enhanced Surveillance and Detection

The incident underscored the imperative for improved surveillance and detection methods at vulnerable public locations. Advances in technology for the rapid identification of chemical agents are pivotal in thwarting potential attacks. The challenges in identifying minute amounts of chemicals and contamination – potentially as low as a few milligrams present across vast airport areas as observed in this incident – highlight the limitations of on-site chemical detection, airport x-ray scanning, and body searches techniques.

Public Awareness and Preparedness

The foundational aspect of countering CBRN threats lies in the education and readiness of frontline personnel. Providing individuals with the expertise to identify and effectively manage such emergencies can significantly reduce casualties and limit the impact. Notably, it is crucial to train frontline personnel, including airport police and medical personnel, in recognizing CBRN indicators. This importance was underscored by this incident where the prompt use of atropine by medical personnel at the airport clinic to stabilize the victim’s pulse could potentially be lifesaving. This assumes intermittent administration as an antidote, contingent on medical personnel being well-informed about the symptoms associated with nerve agent exposure.

Sample of 1mg/mL atropine sulphate from health clinic at KLIA airport sent for lab analysis

International Collaboration

Collaboration among nations is paramount in addressing CBRN threats effectively. Enhancing international cooperation by exchanging intelligence, expertise, and resources is crucial in preempting and managing potential future incidents. Notably, in this incident, Malaysia received assistance offers from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and other international partners. The OPCW laboratory swiftly provided VX and associated standards shortly after the request, enabling the prompt confirmation of VX-related chemicals. Additionally, another partner country offered a second opinion on the biomedical sample analysis, further enhancing confidence in the chemical identification results.

Robust Response Protocols

Establishing swift and coordinated response protocols involving law enforcement, medical professionals, and relevant agencies is imperative. Such protocols play a crucial role in limiting the dissemination of contaminants, accelerating medical interventions, and enabling law enforcement actions. Notably, in the incident, expeditious chemical identification proved pivotal as it catalyzed CBRN-focused investigations, prompted airport decontamination and airport rendering safe procedures, facilitated safe forensic and CBRN sampling, and guided secure analysis procedures. 

Investment in National Protective Programs

Sustained investment in a national protective program focusing on screening and identification technologies, decontamination methods, and a robust stockpile of effective antidotes program is crucial to counter ever-evolving CBRN threats. Malaysia’s long-standing investments in Chemical Warfare Agents (CWA) detection supported by strategic partners like VERIFIN Finland, FOI Sweden and DTSG Australia, dating back to the early 2000s, played a pivotal role in swiftly identifying the chemical in both environmental and biomedical samples during the incident.

Nonetheless, this event underscored the necessity for comprehensive trace-level analysis of many environmental and biomedical samples. Other challenges surfaced during the sample analysis,including matrix or background clean-up, analyzing potentially tampered or ‘cleaned’ evidence, as well as attributing and analyzing binary possibilities necessitating further refinement in analytical methodologies.

A t-shirt from the victim sent for lab analysis. PPB to PPM level concentrations of VX related chemicals were identified in this sample.

Prosecution in Court of Law

Empowering relevant authorities and expert witnesses engaged in CBRN incidents with strategies, specialized training, and simulations for courtroom trials enhances preparedness and guarantees a more efficient response during legal proceedings. Malaysia’s unique experience in prosecuting a Chemical Warfare Agents incident in a judicial setting contributes significantly to global knowledge in this field.

This experience encompasses various facets of the trial process, involving the preparation of witness statements, chemist reports, descriptions of exhibits and samples, conducting mock trials specifically for expert witnesses, safeguarding the integrity of the chain of custody, presenting evidence in court, anticipating, addressing, and understanding the ramifications of questions and answers from legal perspectives, and employing appropriate acts and terminologies during legal proceedings.

Disinformation and Misinformation

CBRN incidents, both intricate and captivating to the public, create an information gap between the informed and uninformed, fostering the spread of disinformation and misinformation. Reactions to the Malaysian VX incident were characterized by a public and global confusion stemming from conflicting narratives by vested interests and pseudo-experts. This highlighted the vital need for transparent communication and robust counter-disinformation efforts by government agencies and experts.

The situation is further complicated by the requisite confidentiality in court proceedings, which presents challenges in releasing informed data to the public, often referred to as sub judice concerns. Addressing false information promptly through official channels and fostering international collaboration among nations, organizations, and experts are urgent steps crucial to combatting disinformation and bridging the knowledge gap in managing CBRN incidents worldwide.


The 2017 VX incident underscores the ever-present threat posed by chemical weapons, urging collective, proactive measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to such crises. Learning from past incidents, fostering global cooperation, and investing in practical and innovative solutions will fortify the international community’s resilience against CBRN threats, striving towards a safer, more secure world.

Dr. Raja Subramanian is a government chemist with a PhD in chemical weapons analysis from the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), and has over 22 years of diverse experience. His work covers chemical weapons analysis, chemical security, and CBRN activities, notably establishing Malaysia’s chemical weapons analysis lab. In 2017, Dr. Raja played a vital role in identifying the nerve agent in a high-profile murder case at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Since 2019, he has been seconded as the Undersecretary at NACWC, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, handling national and international duties in relation to the CWC.

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