What is Novichok, nerve agent at center of Russian ex-s…

Alex Johnson

While Russia says accusations that it poisoned a former Russian agent and his daughter in England are propaganda designed to damage its relations with the West, the nerve agent believed to have been used is a Cold War creation of the old Soviet Union — designed specifically to get around treaties banning chemical weapons.

Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that the British government believed it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, 66, a onetime double agent for Britain who exchanged for Russian spies in 2010, and his daughter, Yulia, 33.

The Skripals remained in critical condition Monday, eight days after they were found unconscious at a shopping mall in Salisbury, about 90 miles west of London .

May told Parliament that British scientists concluded that they were exposed to a nerve agent called Novichok, a Russian word that roughly translates as “newbie” or “new boy” in English.

What is Novichok?

“Novichok” is actually a class of several advanced chemical agents developed in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s.

Their existence was disclosed in 1991 when Vil Mirzayanov, a scientist at Russia’s Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, fled to the West and revealed that Moscow was working on a nerve agent far deadlier than anything ever before created, in defiance of the 1990 Chemical Weapons Accord. Mirzayanov told The New York Times in 1994 that he disclosed the program because “it occurred to me that I was engaged in a criminal enterprise.”

How deadly are Novichoks?

While full details of the chemical makeup of Novichoks remain secret to this day, a Novichok agent “causes a slowing of the heart and restriction of the airways, leading to death by asphyxiation,” Gary Stephens, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Reading in England, told Reuters on Monday.

At least one of the Novichoks is described as being five to eight times as toxic as VX, according to 2010 research at the University of Teesside and James Cook University Hospital in Britain.

Image: England poisoning investigation

Military personnel in protective clothing remove vehicles from a parking lot in Salisbury, England, on Sunday.