Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Spooking Britain

(Bloomberg) -- Novichok, the military-grade nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union, is now at the center of a murder inquiry in the U.K. An Amesbury woman named Dawn Sturgess is dead while a man remains critically ill after being exposed to the same toxic chemical that four months ago sickened a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his adult daughter, Yulia. The latest incident took place eight miles from Salisbury, England, where the Skripals were poisoned in March, in what was described as the first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II.

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.

2. Are the two cases related?

That’s what British counterterrorism police are trying to figure out. Police suspect that Sturgess and her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, handled a discarded item from the first attack, though they have not determined for certain that the two cases are linked, the Associated Press reported. Rowley remains hospitalized in critical condition. The Skripals spent weeks in critical condition before being discharged from Salisbury District Hospital, the same hospital where Sturgess died.

3. 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.

4. How big is the continuing risk to the public?

That depends in part on how Novichok was administered. If delivered as a fine powder that clings to clothing, “dusty” nerve agents like Novichok can be spread widely. Traces of the agent were found in Salisbury in a restaurant and a bar near where Skripal and his daughter were found, and the area was thoroughly decontaminated. The couple that fell ill in recent days had been in Salisbury near roads that had been sealed off during the Skripal investigation, and police are searching for a “contaminated item” that they may have handled, according to the Independent.

5. What can doctors do?

Poisoning with organophosphates can be treated with atropine, a drug that blocks acetylcholine, although it isn’t an antidote. Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian 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. 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. Mirzayanov spent years testing and enhancing them before exposing the program in 1991; he was charged with treason and now lives in exile in the U.S. He says 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 sold the identities of Russian agents to Britain’s MI6, and was released by Russia in a 2010 swap of ex-spies -- as well as the weight of history: 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 the suggestion. Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of being behind the Skripal poisonings and expelled 23 diplomats in retaliation. She also pledged that government officials and the royal family would boycott the World Cup soccer tournament, hosted by Russia. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement.

7. 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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