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Espionage |Explainer

What is novichok, the nerve agent blamed for British attack?

  1. Developed by the Soviet Union
  2. Far more deadly than VX
  3. Never known to be used on the battlefield

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Novichok, a class of nerve agents, identified by Britain as “military grade” chemical weapons used in the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent, were designed by chemists in the former Soviet Union to be almost undetectable and far more deadly than better known nerve agents. Their development and existence is the stuff of spy novels-made-real and they’ve never been known to have been used.

Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament this week chemical weapons experts identified the nerve agent used in the attack on Sergei Skripal, 66 and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia as of the novichok family. She said it was either “a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

‘You cannot imagine the horror, it’s so bad’ – Russian whistleblower

Wikipedia has an extensive entry on novichok – a word that apparently means “new guy” or “newbie”. Novichok is said to be the deadliest-known nerve agent and was developed by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s to counter existing tests and avoid limitations on chemical weapons. Their existence was revealed by a 1992 Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper publication from chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov.

Mirzayanov was head of a counter-intelligence department that wanted to make sure foreign spies could not detect any traces of production. Novichok has apparently never been used on the battlefield.

“It’s for paralysing people, it causes you convulsions and you can’t breathe and after that you die. If you get enough of a dose of it,” Mirzayanov, now in exile in the United States told The Daily Mail. ‘It’s real torture, it’s impossible to imagine. Even in low doses the pain can go on for weeks. You cannot imagine the horror, it’s so bad.”

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One of the scientists involved in the development of novichok and who was accidentally exposed, Andrei Zheleznyakov, died in 1992 after five years of deteriorating health. Novichok belonges to a category of chemicals known as organophosphates.

The novichok derivatives are harder to detect than other nerve agents, according to pharmacology expert at the University of Reading, Professor Gary Stephens. They were designed to be undetectable to standard NATO chemical detection equipment and bypass the Chemical Weapons Convention which Russia signed and went into effect in 1997. The chemical compounds in novichok are not on the banned list, he was reported as telling The Financial Times (may be behind paywall).

Novichok can apparently exist as liquids or powder. Victims can be exposed by inhaling them or absorbing them through the skin. Once exposed, novichok causes people to experience involuntary contraction of muscles which results in respiratory and cardiac arrest and without treatment will cause death from heart failure or suffocation.

It’s unclear how the Skripals were contaminated. Doctors Ian Greaves and Paul Hunt told the FT that nerve agent poisoning antidotes must be taken immediately, but that some novichok agents were designed to be resistant. Novichok agents are said to be five to eight times more lethal than VX, previously thought to be the world’s deadliest, according to FT.  Considerably less is known about novichok agents than sarin, which was used in chemical weapons attacks in Syria in 2013, or VX, which was used to kill Kim Jong Un’s brother last year, according to the U.S.

“Very little has been published in open scientific literature about them,” according to Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, as reported by the Financial Times .

Washington Post reporter Will Englund wrote of his investigation which revealed the existence of the novichok program in 1992 based on information from former Soviet scientist Mirzayanov.

‘It’s a brazen attack,’ Mirzayanov said in the interview with the Mail. ‘Putin thinks he can use everything to kill enemies. They don’t tolerate any opponents.”

Not everyone is convinced by the British government’s statement about the origin of the substance or their ability to confirm it as novichok. Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who left the diplomatic service in a controversy over allegations of torture by the Uzbek government, questioned the official British explanation. He wrote on a blog post that the he did not believe the UK government had chemical fingerprints of novichok to trace its origin back to Russia. According to him, neither Porton Down nor OPCW experts had ever confirmed such a substance even exists. Besides, if Vil Mirzayanov’s claims are true, then novichok could be made even by a well-equipped commercial chemical company, not only facilities of the former Soviet Union, as Mirzayanov himself stated: ‘One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.’

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Harry is one of the journalists at WikiTribune. He is a masters graduand from Cardiff University, with a diploma in Magazine Journalism. He has an interest in politics and science, having previously studied Geography at Aberystwyth University. Follow Harry on Twitter @harryridgewell

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