Traces of the Novichok nerve agent allegedly used to poison Alexey Navalny were found on a water bottle in his hotel room in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he was staying before he fell critically ill, according to the Russian opposition leader's colleagues.
The discovery is potentially an important clue in understanding how Navalny was poisoned and left fighting for his life. His colleagues on Thursday though said it did not appear the bottle itself had contained the nerve agent but that it had picked up traces of the chemical from Navalny when he drank from it, after he had been poisoned. That suggests Navalny was exposed to the poison before he left the hotel and not at the airport, where initially it was suspected he may have ingested it in a cup of tea.
Navalny fell critically ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow almost a month ago and was later airlifted to Berlin in an induced coma. Toxicology tests showed Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok family, a type of military chemical weapon developed covertly by Russia and used in the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergey Skripal in Britain.
Navalny's team said in an Instagram post on Thursday that a German lab had found traces of the nerve agent on one of several hotel water bottles that his colleagues in Tomsk collected immediately after learning he had fallen sick. Fearing Navalny had likely been poisoned, they decided to quickly gather potential evidence.
"It was clear from the very beginning that he had been poisoned," Georgy Alburov, a member of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation who was among those who collected the bottles from the hotel room, told ABC News on Thursday. He said they decided they need to gather the things "even if there was a microscopic chance that it could be useful."
The Instagram post included a video showing Navalny's colleagues in the hotel room wearing rubber gloves and collecting water bottles. Alburov said they also took shampoo bottles and sealed everything in a sealed bag.
"If we could have taken the bed, we would have taken the bed," he said.
Two weeks later, the German military lab found traces of the Novichok nerve agent and three other labs that took samples from Navalny confirmed it was the same he was poisoned with, Navalny's team said. That ruled out any possibility that Navalny had been poisoned after he left the hotel.
But Alburov said the concentration of nerve agent found on the bottle was so small that it was clear the bottle had not contained the poison itself. He ruled out that the Novichok could have been in the water Navalny had drunk.
"No, in the water, no way. There wasn't some kind of very big concentration, but there were enough traces that Alexey had touched that bottle," he said.
Tiny traces, likely left by Navalny's saliva, had remained on the bottle, Alburov said.
"That bottle isn't the first source of the poison. It is a sort of fingerprint because it was used by Alexey -- he drank water from it when he was already poisoned," he said.
Two labs in Sweden and France also have confirmed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. French President Emmanuel Macron called President Vladimir Putin this week, demanding Russia urgently shed light on the circumstances around Navalny's poisoning.
Navalny regained consciousness from the induced coma last week and appears to be recovering. This week he posted his first public message since the poisoning, along with a photo of himself sitting up and awake in his hospital bed surrounded by his family. His spokeswoman has said he intends to return to Russia once he recovers.
Navalny's family and colleagues have accused the Kremlin of being behind his poisoning and that the use of Novichok, a military nerve agent closely held by the Russian state, means it must have been conducted with Putin's approval.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement and has pointed to claims by Russian doctors who initially treated Navalny that they found no signs of poisoning.
Navalny was taken to a hospital in Omsk, where the plane made an emergency landing after he collapsed on board. He was treated there initially before his family had him flown to Germany. Navalny's relatives and colleagues accused the Kremlin of deliberately delaying Navalny's evacuation to try to make it harder for German doctors to identify what he was poisoned with.
The Omsk hospital has suggested Navalny had suffered an episode of severe low blood pressure caused by a "metabolic disorder."
But Alburov noted that the Omsk paramedics who first treated Navalny on the airport runway had given him atropine, an antidote for poisoning.
A number of opposition figures and Kremlin critics have been poisoned previously in Russia, who have struggled afterward to identify the poison because they have been unable to get samples fast enough to independent labs abroad and Russian authorities refused to investigate.
Navalny's colleagues have said they were sure from the beginning that Russian authorities would also obstruct any investigation into Navalny's poisoning and therefore decided they needed to preserve everything they could.
Alburov said he and others had spread the bottles out among different cars to transport them first to Omsk while Navalny was being treated there, saying they had taken the precautions because local police had sought to them. From Omsk, he said, the bottles and other objects were placed aboard the medical evacuation plane provided by a German NGO that then carried Navalny to Berlin. He said Russian police in Omsk had not taken any steps to investigate besides seizing CCTV camera footage at the hotel.
"It was pretty obvious the case will not be investigated in Russia," Navalny's team wrote on Thursday. "And that was right: nearly one month after, Russia hasn't recognized Alexey's poisoning."
Russian police have so far said they see no grounds for opening a criminal investigation into Navalny's case since Russian doctors have not confirmed he was poisoned.
The head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, Sergey Naryshkin, said on Monday that all Novichok stocks in Russia had been destroyed and insisted there was no evidence Navalny had been exposed to anything toxic.
This report was featured in the Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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