The French government has authorized the distribution of an antidote to counter the potentially deadly effects of nerve gas as it rushes to expand security measures after the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 129 people.
In a decree published in the French Official Gazette on Sunday, two days after the attacks, the director-general of social affairs, Benoît Vallet, authorized the release of atropine sulfate solution from military stockpiles.
The decree stated that the decision to do so was made "considering that the risk of terrorist attacks and the risk of exposure to neurotoxic organophosphates are serious health risks that require urgent measures."
The government evidently fears that the Paris climate-change conference, known as COP21, is a possible terrorist target. Some 40,000 delegates and dozens of heads of state are expected to attend the conference, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 at enormous pavilions at Le Bourget airport in suburban Paris. The COP21 event is mentioned high up in the decree.
The decree states that atropine sulfate injections, which are made by the military's central pharmacy, should be made available in case of exposure to poison gases of "potentially large numbers of victims." The decree allows the injection to be stored and dispensed by emergency health services, such as hospitals.
While it is entirely possible that the atropine would have been released even if the Paris attacks had not occurred, there is no doubt the decision to do so on the weekend was triggered by those attacks.
According to smithsonian.com, atropine is the most common drug used to combat nerve agents – the chemicals that block the communication between nerves and organs. Atropine can help stop the seizures and convulsions that can result in death from nerve-gas attacks, such as sarin.
Sarin was almost certainly used in the Ghouta chemical attack in August, 2013, in the suburbs of Damascus during the Syrian civil war. Hospitals were overwhelmed with victims and doctors ran out of atropine within a few hours, The New York Times reported.
In the wake of the Friday night terror attacks, France remains on high alert and security measures are intensifying as French police take extraordinary precautions. A national state of emergency was declared by President François Hollande; in an address to a joint session of parliament on Monday, he asked that the status – which gives police and investigators virtually unhindered powers to make arrests and search properties for evidence – be extended for three months.
In the streets of Paris, police and soldiers were ubiquitous at tourist sites, government buildings, schools and train stations, though far less so on the side streets. The flying of drones and the use of fireworks have been banned. The Eiffel Tower was open on Monday but closed again on Tuesday as soldiers patrolled the grounds around it. No official explanation for the closing was given.
At airports, all passports were being checked, even those from the so-called Schengen area – the 22 European Union countries that allow passport-free travel.
Heightened airport precautions could last for some time because of potential bomb scares. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his intelligence chief had determined that it was a bomb that brought down the Metrojet passenger plane over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 aboard. The homemade explosive was equivalent in power to one kilogram of TNT, Russian investigators revealed.
The Islamic State took responsibility for both the Metrojet bombing and the Paris terror attacks.
Four days after the attacks, Paris life was more or less back to normal, but tensions remained high. High-school students were prevented from taking breaks on the sidewalks. The outdoor seating areas of many cafés remained largely empty, and police and soldiers were reacting quickly to any behaviour they considered unusual.
A Canadian TV journalist who was at the Eiffel Tower on Monday recorded the images of a normal-looking man carrying a knapsack who was apparently talking to himself as he approached tourists. Even though the man looked harmless, the journalist said he was pushed to the ground by both police and soldiers, whose rifles were pointed at his head. He was let go.