Explained: The toxic history of nerve agent Novichok

The Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok is back in the news. This time it is reported to been used to poison Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

Novichok has not been used in warfare. In March 2018 it was used as a poison to target Skirpal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury in England. (File/AP Photo)

Two years after coming in the spotlight after the alleged poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yulia Skirpal in Britain, the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok is back in the news. This time it is reported to been used to poison Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

Navalny, who is one of Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20. He was first taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, from where he was later transferred to Berlin’s Charite Hospital. Tests performed at the German hospital showed the presence of Novichok.

In a statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert Wednesday said testing by a special German military laboratory had shown “proof without doubt of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group”.

How was the Novichok agent developed?

During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were at loggerheads, the two were also aggressively developing weapons of mass destruction.

On March 25, 1983, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a secret decree directing the research institute GosNIIOKhT in Moscow to develop binary versions of the fourth generation agents. The rationale behind the move was to catch up with the United States, which already had three binary chemical munitions under development.

However, unlike the United States where the development of binary chemical agents were being openly debated in the Congress, in the Soviet Union, the nerve agents were being developed under extreme secrecy, as part of a programme codenamed ‘FOLIANT’. One of the main reasons for the secrecy was to develop such agents whose components resembled ordinary industrial chemicals, so that they would not be detected using the standard 1970s and 1980s NATO chemical detection equipment. The chemicals used to make the agent are far less hazardous than the agent themselves, and therefore, it could also circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty that came into effect from April 1997 and has 192 countries as signatories.

The first chemical weapon developed by the Foliant scientists was given the code name ‘Novichok’, which in Russian means ‘newcomer’. Chemical weapons expert Jonathan Tucker, in his book ‘War of nerves: Chemical warfare from World War I to Al Qaeda’, wrote that the Soviet military planned to produce upto six types of Novichok binary precursors at the Pavlador chemical plant in Northern Kazakhstan. However, while it was still under development, the chemical warfare production building had to be demolished in 1987 before the forthcoming Chemical Weapons Convention. Subsequently, Novichok agents started being produced in research institutes in Uzbekistan and Russia.

How does the Novichok agent affect the human body?

Much of what we know of Novichok came from the writings of scientist Vil Mirzayanov and his colleague Lev Fyodorov, who were formerly connected to the Soviet Union’s chemical weapons development institute. Their publication appeared in 1992, and it suggested that the nerve gas is 10 times more effective in killing people than the US equivalent, known as VX.

Also Explained | Aleksei Navalny: Russia’s opposition leader who could be the latest victim of poisoning

Like other binary nerve gases, Novichok too is absorbed through the lungs or skin and interferes with the nervous system, leading to paralysis. Nerve gases block the action of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of acetylcholine and of some other choline esters that function as neurotransmitters. Consequently, muscles go into a state of uncontrolled contraction, which is a sign of paralysis or seizure like state. It can turn fatal if the paralysis extends to the cardiac and respiratory muscles. dilation of pupils, sweating and gastrointestinal pain are some of the other symptoms caused by nerve agents.

When have Novichok and other nerve agents been used in the past?

Novichok has not been used in warfare. In March 2018 it was used as a poison to target Skirpal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury in England. Both of them survived. Later, the British government accused Russia of attempted murder. Russia though denied the accusations and blamed Britain for the poisoning instead.

FILE – In this Wednesday, May 23, 2018 file photo, Yulia Skripal poses for the media during an interview in London. A Russian spy who became a double agent for Britain, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned with military grade nerve agent Novichok in the British city of Salisbury in 2018. (AP, File)

Three months later, two British nationals, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess were poisoned by the same nerve agent. While Sturgess died, Rowley regained consciousness a couple of days later. One of them had apparently handled a perfume bottle used for carrying out the first attack.

In November 2019, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) added Novichok to its list of banned toxins, in one of the first major changes to the treaty since it was signed in the 1990s.

Instances when nerve agents have been used in warfare include the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq used them against Kurdish residents in 1988. In 1994, eight people died and 500 were affected when a Sarin attack took place at Matsumoto in Japan. Further, in 1995 a sarin attack took place in the Tokyo subway killing 12 persons and injuring 50 others.

More recently, in April 2018, nerve agents used during an attack carried out in the Syrian city of Douma led to the death of nearly 50 people.

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