On March 4, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious in Salisbury, England. They were the victims of an apparent poisoning. The poison was identified this week as a nerve agent called Novichok, part of a group of chemical weapons that are said to be extremely potent, of which we know very little.
Even before the results of the lab came out, it seemed that the Skripals were victims of a nervous agent: Yulia Skripal was unconscious, stiff, vomiting and had lost control of her bodily functions, reports the BBC; Sergei Skripal had become rigid and immobile, according to CBS News. (None died, but both are hospitalized in critical condition.) Since the Novichok nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Russia for the poisoning. Although Moscow denies any participation, the attack fuels the tensions of the Cold War era, intensified by the fact that this deadly chemical weapon is so mysterious.
"The United States is the only country that developed and produced these agents [Novichok]," said Jean Pascal Zanders, a former researcher at the European Union's Institute for Security Studies, Mark Peplow at Chemical & Engineering News. "It's almost as if the Russians were sending a message to the West that they can get anywhere, whenever they want."
The attack fuels the tensions of the Cold War era
Novichok's agents were created under a clandestine program that continued despite international negotiations for the banning of chemical weapons, according to former scientist and Soviet defector Vil Mirzayanov. That secret is the reason why we still do not know its exact chemical composition. What we do know is that Novichok, which in Russian means "newcomer", is actually a collection of chemical weapons that only become lethal after mixing two less deadly ingredients. It is believed that these so-called binary nerve agents are safer to store, Mirzayanov wrote in 1995. But they are also easier to hide from inspectors, especially if those two ingredients could be masked as components of fertilizers or pesticides.
We also do not know exactly how Novichok kills. Other neurotoxic agents, such as sarin gas used against civilians in Syria or the VX that killed Kim-Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's head of state, Kim Jong-un-get, enter the body by breathing , food or skin. Once inside, they block an enzyme that is key to healthy signaling between nerves and muscles. That leads to symptoms like drooling, convulsions and paralysis. "You're tearing, you have a runny nose, you have fluid in your lungs, you have a lot of diarrhea, you sweat, and these agents also lower your heart rate," says Peter Chai, Brigham's medical toxicologist. and the Women's Hospital in Boston. "Basically he chokes on his own secretions, so it's a horrible way to die."
"It's a horrible way to die."
In the right doses, nerve agents can kill within five to 15 minutes, says chemical weapons expert Mark Bishop at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey. But it is believed that Novichok's agents are even more dangerous and deadly; Mirzayanov says that Novichok-5, for example, can be five to eight times more powerful than VX. So, the fact that Skripals is still alive means that "it must have been a low dose, or impure, or not administered in a really efficient way," Bishop tells The Verge. "Because you do not need a lot of nerve agent to be fatal."
The treatment of Novichok poisoning is also "practically impossible", according to the Manual of Toxicology Agents of the Chemical War. For other nerve agents, treatment is usually diazepam or Valium to prevent seizures, and atropine, which helps dry secretions that could choke or drown a nervous gas victim, Chai tells The Verge. That gives a little time to another drug called pralidoxime, or 2-PAM, to prevent the nerve agent permanently closing that key enzyme. But Novichok's agents could have more ways to harm people, according to the Manual: "Consequently, antidotes to conventional nerve agents may not work."
"It does not take a lot of nerve agent to be fatal."
It is surprising to see Novichok come to the surface in 2018, especially since Russia was supposed to have destroyed its 39,967 metric tons of chemical weapons by September 2017, according to the international organization that oversees the ban on chemical weapons. The British prime minister has demanded that Moscow disclose information about the Novichok program, so it is possible that we can soon learn more about these neurotoxic agents.
However, Bishop says do not bet: "The Russians are really good at keeping secrets."