Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Spooking Britain

(Bloomberg) -- Novichok, the military-grade nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union, is at the center of a murder inquiry in the U.K. that’s grown into a diplomatic row. At least five people were sickened, one fatally, after coming into contact with the toxic chemical in Salisbury, England, a two-hour drive southwest of London, with the apparent target being a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal. The attack, described as the first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II, has led to international condemnation of the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, which continues to deny any involvement.

1. What is Novichok?

The word -- pronounced novee-CHOCK -- means “the new guy” in Russian. It refers to the fourth generation of solid nerve agents developed in the former Soviet Union, chemicals manufactured from materials that remain legal under the international Chemical Weapons Convention that took effect in 1997. These so-called binary agents (meaning they become lethal only when combined) were first made as ultrafine powders but can be turned into liquids and gas. The toxins belong to a chemical family called organophosphates, and because they’re related to pesticides (which are also known to have nervous-system effects), their development was sometimes cloaked as an agricultural effort.

Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Spooking Britain

2. Why does this point to Russia?

The agents that make Novichok were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union during the later years of the Cold War. Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian chemist who spent years testing and enhancing them before exposing the program in 1991 and now lives in exile in the U.S., said only the Kremlin knows how to make Novichok and he doubts a nonstate actor could have weaponized it. There’s also the choice of target. Skripal, who was poisoned along with his daughter, Yulia, sold the identities of Russian agents to Britain’s MI6 and was released by Russia in a 2010 swap of ex-spies. History is also a factor: A U.K. inquiry said Russians were almost certainly behind the 2006 poisoning in London, with polonium, of Alexander Litvinenko, another ex-spy. (Russia rejects that accusation as well.) Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of being behind the Skripal poisonings and expelled 23 diplomats in retaliation.

3. How did this all happen?

Police suspect that two Russians, likely military intelligence officers, applied Novichok to the front door of the Skripals’ home in Salisbury, a quiet tourist town in the southern English countryside. The father and daughter were found on March 4 slumped on a shopping-center bench, unresponsive. They eventually recovered enough to be released from a local hospital, along with a police officer who fell sick after aiding in the investigation. Four months later, and eight miles from Salisbury, a woman named Dawn Sturgess died from exposure to the same nerve agent, and her boyfriend was hospitalized in critical condition. He recovered and told police that Sturgess had sprayed an "oily" substance on her wrists after finding what she believed to be a bottle of perfume. Police released photos of what they believe to be a forged Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume bottle that carried the Novichok.

4. How does Novichok work?

Agents like Novichok can enter the body by being eaten or inhaled, or through the skin, and block the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down a nervous-system protein called acetylcholine. The resulting buildup interferes with the brain’s communication with muscles and glands throughout the body, resulting in what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “cholinergic syndrome”: uncontrolled secretions in the lungs and mouth, diarrhea and vomiting, sweating, convulsions, delusions, racing heartbeat and generalized weakness that can progress to paralysis, suffocation and death. Children are particularly vulnerable to the poison, because they have less capacity than adults to eliminate toxins. Skripal, the former Russian spy, was found in a Salisbury shopping area, foaming at the mouth, struggling to breathe and making strange movements with his hands; the eyes of his daughter were described as wide open but completely white.

Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Spooking Britain

5. What can doctors do?

Poisoning with organophosphates can be treated with atropine, a drug that blocks acetylcholine, although it isn’t an antidote. Mirzayanov, the former chemist at Russia’s State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, told Sky News that those who were exposed could be at risk of illness for years to come. He said slight exposure could produce headaches, cognitive difficulty and problems with coordination.

6. What can the world do about Novichok?

Not much, perhaps. Russia, like most nations of the world, is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires members to destroy any such weapons and the facilities that produced them. (Only Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan haven’t signed the accord; Israel signed but hasn’t ratified.) And Russia said last year that it had destroyed all its stocks of banned chemical weapons. The pact is overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. Peter Wilson, the U.K.’s representative to the group, said on March 13 that Russia “has failed, for many years, to declare chemical weapons development programs dating from the 1970s.” Russia is not the only problem. The European Union and the U.S. have imposed sanctions on people and companies to try to stop the transfer of materials and substances that may have been used by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to manufacture chemical weapons.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on efforts to ban chemical weapons.
  • The Skripal case followed an old Soviet script, Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg View.
  • National Geographic looks at organophosphates, “a common but deadly pesticide.”
  • The U.K. government’s guidance to the public.

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