Foreign governments, including Canada, France, Germany, Syria and the United States, are looking towards the antidote, HI- 6, as the next generation of protection against chemical weapons but Britain has rejected it so far.
Research in Canada, France and the US has shown that HI-6 is more effective than pralidoxime mesylate (known as P2S), favoured by the British army. Both offer protection against agents such as tabun and sarin, but only HI-6 protects against soman. Like other nerve gases, soman kills within 15 minutes.
One senior toxicologist said: 'The scientists I have met at Porton Down (the Ministry of Defence research centre) would like to recommend HI-6 to the MoD but a decision has been made upstairs on grounds of cost.'
Another source close to the MoD said the ministry had bought 1.5 million P2S-filled ComboPen auto-injectors from Solvay Duphar in the Netherlands in 1990. 'It would be a brave man to recommend scrapping them all and starting again with HI-6,' he said.
Dr Derek Palmer, chairman of Phoenix, said he found the ministry's attitude 'astonishing'. 'We are the only manufacturer of HI-6 in the world, we are a British company and we want to sell to the MoD but they aren't interested.
'We have supplied Sweden with enough HI-6 for all its troops and civilians. In our opinion, Swedish civilians are now better protected than British soldiers.'
Dr Dinny Madill, head of Canadian defence research into HI-6 from 1987 to 1993, said he was puzzled by the British approach.
'We carried out extensive research into the efficacy and safety of HI-6 . . . and it performed over and above the efficiency of all other oximes (antidotes) against all known nerve agents . . . All our troops had HI-6 when they went into the Gulf war.'
Dr Graham Pearson, director- general of the MoD's Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, said: 'We can see HI-6 may have some advantages and are certainly interested to see if it would give us benefits over those we already have. Once something has gone into service and is being procured, you may well find that the (MoD) procurers are not terribly interested in trying to change things because they have a stockpile.'