Sunday, March 25News That Matters

Russian spy: What is Novichok and what does it do?

A former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain critically ill after the attempted murder in Salisbury on 4 March.

The chemical was identified by experts at the defence and science laboratory at Porton Down.

So what do we know about this military-grade nerve agent?

1) It was developed in the Soviet Union

The name Novichok means “newcomer” in Russian, and applies to a group of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

They were known as fourth generation chemical weapons and were developed under a Soviet programme codenamed “Foliant”.

In 1999, defence officials from the US travelled to Uzbekistan to help dismantle and decontaminate one of the former Soviet Union’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities.

According to a senior defector, the Soviets used the plant to produce and test small batches of Novichok. The nerve agent was designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

2) It is more toxic than other agents

One of the group of chemicals known as Novichok – A-230 – is reportedly 5-8 times more toxic than VX nerve agent.

“This is a more dangerous and sophisticated agent than sarin or VX and is harder to identify,” says Professor Gary Stephens, a pharmacology expert at the University of Reading.

VX agent was the chemical used to kill the half-brother of Kim Jong-un last year, according to the US.

A number of variants of A-230 have been manufactured, and one of them was reportedly approved for use by the Russian military as a chemical weapon.

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3) It exists in various forms

While some variants of Novichok are liquids, others are thought to exist in solid form.

They can be dispersed as an ultra-fine powder as opposed to a gas.

Some of the agents are also reported to be “binary weapons”, meaning the nerve agent is typically stored as two less toxic chemical ingredients. When these are mixed, they react to produce the active toxic agent.

This makes the ingredients easier to transport as they only become fully toxic when mixed.

“One of the main reasons these agents are developed is because their component parts are not on the banned list,” says Professor Stephens. “It means the chemicals that are mixed to create it are much easier to deliver with no risk to the health of the courier.”

4) It takes effect very quickly

If a person inhales Novichok, or even if it touches the skin, it begins to take effect rapidly.

Symptoms can start to show in as little as 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

However, systemic symptoms may not show until 18 hours after exposure.

5) Its symptoms are similar to those of other nerve agents

It is thought Novichok has similar effects to other nerve agents.

This means it acts by blocking the messages from the nerves to the muscles, causing a collapse of many bodily functions.

Symptoms include white eyes, as the pupils become constricted, convulsions, drooling and, in the worse cases, coma, respiratory failure and death.

It primarily causes a slowing of the heart and restriction of the airways, leading to death by asphyxiation.

Some variants of Novichok have been specifically designed to resist standard nerve agent antidotes.

If a person is exposed to it, their clothing should be removed and their skin washed with soap and water. Their eyes should be rinsed and they should be given oxygen.

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