Novichok: What is it?

The poison has hit headlines lately, but what is it?
08 September 2020

Interview with 

Phil Sansom


A bottle marked with a skull and crossbones, and the word poison, containing a dark purple liquid


German doctors confirmed that the Russian opposition leader - and vocal Putin critic - Alexei Navalny, who fell ill on a flight to Moscow in late August, is the latest victim of poisoning with the nerve agent Novichock. This is the same stuff that was used in 2018 in Salisbury to attack the Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Navalny has woken up from his medically induced coma, and doctors in Berlin are saying that while he's responding to verbal stimulii, they still have no idea just how serious the long term effects may be. So what is Novichock, how does it work, and where does it come from? Phil Sansom as the details…

Novichok is a Russian word that means ‘newcomer’ or ‘newbie’, and it refers to some of what might be the deadliest nerve agents ever made. In fact, Novichok is a family of 7 different agents, developed over the seventies and eighties in the Soviet Union and then Russia, carefully designed to circumvent chemical weapons bans and be undetectable by NATO.

They work by using two separate ingredients, or reagents, which when combined, react to produce a powerful poison that disrupts the human nervous system. It does that by messing with a chemical called acetylcholine that carries signals between nerves and muscles, or between nerves and glands, or even between nerves and other nerves.

More specifically, the poison blocks a second chemical that normally would break down the acetylcholine. You actually get too much acetylcholine building up at these junctions between cells. Your muscles get overstimulated and all lock up, effectively paralysing you, and potentially killing you from heart failure or suffocation. It’s a nasty death; and while drugs that block the acetylcholine receptors can sometimes help. that’s only if they come in time.

Novichok agents are extremely powerful - lethal at doses of milligrams - but part of what makes them so effective is that the two reagents are close to harmless on their own, and have shelf lives that are long enough to transport them across the world. The one that probably poisoned Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 - called A234 - craftily developed using reagents and approaches that could be disguised as legitimate endeavours to produce pesticides.

If they’re so effective, though, why did the Skripals survive? And though Navalny is in a coma - how is it that his condition is supposedly improving? The answer is that people do survive, but the lasting injuries can be lifelong. One Russian scientist, accidentally exposed while he was developing the Novichok agents, never walked again, and his deteriorated over five years until he suffered a horrible, lingering death. 

Plus, if all this wasn’t bad enough, they seem to be incredibly stable molecules - one agent can stick around in the environment for half a century, making them a threat long after use.


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