Quirks & Quarks

Novichok and the science of assassination with chemical weapons

The brazen attack in Salisbury, England, can be better understood with some science
Police officers wear protective suits inside the fence of 'Ashley Wood Recovery,' a vehicle recovery business in Salisbury, England. The use of Russian-developed nerve agent Novichok to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter makes it 'highly likely' that Russia was involved, British Prime Minister Theresa May said. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
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​Novichok, the deadly new nerve agent

On March 4, Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian double-agent, and his daughter Yulia were exposed to a nerve agent in what seems to have been an assassination attempt. They are both still in intensive care in a British hospital and may never recover. The nerve agent is called Novichok, Russian for "newcomer" and is related to Sarin and VX gases, both banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The brazenness of the attack is, of course, terrifying. Governments and intelligence communities are still investigating how this attack occurred.

What is ​Novichok?

Novichok is part of a group of chemicals called organophosphates that also include a wide variety of pesticides. The nerve agent versions of these chemicals can block an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase that is normally responsible for degrading a chemical in the body that stimulates muscular contraction. The resulting uncontrolled muscular contractions can then lead to paralysis, breathing problems, convulsions, and cardiac arrest.

Who did it? 

The big question is: who tried to kill the Skripals? The finger is pointed firmly at the Russians, after all, Novichok was invented during the Cold War as a weapon of the Soviet Army. According to Professor Alastair Hay, an emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, this had to be the result of a technically-sophisticated organization. The expertise required to mix and deploy this potent nerve agent means that it was not cooked up in somebody's garage. The only way for the investigators to really determine who did it requires one of the victims to survive to tell their tale. At this point, the perpetrators may never be revealed.

Novichok nerve agents were developed in secret as part of the Soviet Union's Cold War weapons program. (CBC)