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Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Spooking Britain

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - MAY 25: Police officers in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits arrive at the scene as emergency services practice their drill to cope with a terror attack May 25, 2004 in Dundee, Scotland. Firefighters who were due to take part in the drill boycotted the event over safety concerns on the advice of their union. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - MAY 25: Police officers in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits arrive at the scene as emergency services practice their drill to cope with a terror attack May 25, 2004 in Dundee, Scotland. Firefighters who were due to take part in the drill boycotted the event over safety concerns on the advice of their union. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) (Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe)

Novichok, the military-grade nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union, is again at the center of a poisoning that’s grown into a diplomatic row. Germany said tests showed “unequivocally” that Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, hospitalized in Berlin, was poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, dramatically escalating tensions with the Kremlin. In 2018, at least six people were sickened, one fatally, after coming into contact with the toxic chemical in Salisbury, England, with the apparent target being a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal. That attack, described as the first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II, led to widespread condemnation of the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, which denies involvement in both cases.

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. 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., has 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 targets. Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, an anti-corruption investigator whose exposés have targeted Putin’s inner circle. 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.)

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.

4. 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, has said that those who are exposed could be at risk of illness for years to come. He said slight exposure could produce headaches, cognitive difficulty and problems with coordination.

5. 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 in 2017 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 in 2018 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.

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