Earlier this month, a Cold War era chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union was used in an attempted assassination in the UK of a former Russian Military Intelligence officer turned double agent for MI6. Sergei Skripal, the spy who was granted asylum to the UK in 2010, and his daughter Yulia, were found unconscious on a park bench in the quiet town of Salisbury, England. Within days, hundreds of military personnel, law enforcement officials, and emergency responders would descend upon the scene in protective HAZMAT gear, working tirelessly to decontaminate the area.
With such a dramatic and rapid response, one could be excused for assuming the UK government was being overly careful in the face of an unknown nerve agent – but when analysis of the agent at the scene came back, it was clear: an abundance of caution was not only wise, it was necessary. The culprit, it would seem, was “Novichok,” a nerve agent specially designed by the Soviet Union to defeat both physical, and even diplomatic, anti-chemical weapon defenses.
In fact, Novichok, which is translated from Russian to “Newcomer,” is so bad, even the men responsible for inventing it talk about it with a sense of fearful revelry; like Frankenstein, lamenting the monster he created.
“It’s real torture, it’s impossible to imagine. Even in low doses the pain can go on for weeks. You cannot imagine the horror, it’s so bad.” Vil Mirzayanov told UK media outlets earlier this week.
Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Mizayanov was a part of the team that helped to develop Novichok. He was so troubled by the chemical weapons he helped to create that Mizayanov, like Skripal, found himself betraying his country to do what he believed was right.
After it was discovered that Mizayanov was attempting to reveal the extent of the Soviet Union’s illegal chemical weapons manufacturing apparatus, he was charged with treason. He has since lived in exile in the United States.
VX has often been described as the deadliest of the common nerve agents found in use today, and recently made headlines in the North Korea-linked assassination of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last year. Novichok, which as far as the United States is aware, exists only inside Russian stockpiles left over from Soviet labs, is considered to be more deadly than even VX. Some experts contend that Novichok is slightly more potent than the legendary VX, while others argue that depending on dispersal method and potency, Novichok can be as much as five to ten times more powerful.
Novichok’s story begins in 1987, when Soviet scientists were tasked with producing a new, potent weaponized nerve agent with three very specific requirements. First among them, this new weapon needed to circumvent existing chemical weapons treaties by utilizing only components that had not been banned by international agreements. In doing so, the Soviet Union would technically have legal grounds to defend their use of the nerve agent, arguing that because Novichok itself wasn’t on the banned list, nor were any of its components, it technically would violate no treaty already in place.
Nefarious sounding as the first requirement was, the following two were even worse. Piggybacking on the use of compounds that had not been banned, it was also integral that the new nerve toxin be developed in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to detect using Cold War era precautionary measures, and if possible, even after the fact when investigations were launched into the deaths of those exposed to it.
Novichok was never impossible to detect, if you knew what you were looking for, of course. It was actually Mizayanov’s work testing air quality samples outside of his own laboratories that pushed him to betray his government and reveal the Soviet chemical weapons project to the world. He identified trace elements of the extremely hazardous nerve agent in the environment around his facility, and grew concerned about the unwitting Soviet citizens being exposed to what was, at the time, perhaps the most deadly chemical weapon ever produced.
The third and final requirement Mizayanov and his team were given regarding the new agent was perhaps the most egregious of all: the weaponized agent needed to be able to defeat NATO chemical protective gear. This would ensure the efficacy of the agent regardless of the level of preparation NATO forces could muster, as well as ensuring those responding to the chemical weapon attack would ultimately succumb to the deadly effects of Novichok as well.
There were several different agents developed under the Novichok moniker, including A-230, Novichok 5 and Novichok 7; each slight variations on the theme, but all utilizing a similar method of transportation and delivery. Developed as a binary compound, the process of producing Novichok was actually halted in production before the final chemical reactions could take place, resulting in two separate and safely transportable compounds. The separate elements were relatively harmless and extremely difficult to detect, but when combined, would produce an extremely deadly weapon.
Colorless, tasteless, and odorless as separate elements or a combined weaponized compound, Novichok could still be carried through most airport, maritime and even postal security measures. Once exposed, there is no method of treatment that can stop Novichok’s assault on human biology. Even low levels of exposure can be fatal over time, with many incidental exposures resulting in long, painful deaths during its development. High levels of exposure can result in near immediate paralysis, followed by labored breathing, and ultimately suffocation. The symptoms caused by the agent can be combated medically, but even if the victim survives, they are forever changed.
“Treatment involves supporting breathing and delivering pharmaceuticals that on the one hand moderate the behavior of the nervous system and that can reverse the action of the agent,” Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London, said. She describes Novichok’s effect on the body as “systemic collapse of many bodily functions.”
“It is likely that there will be long-term neurological problems for a person who has been exposed to these agents.”
On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May formally accused the Russian government of handing a hand in the deployment of Novichok on UK soil, or at the very least, failing to adequately ensure the agent didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Russia has a history of assassinating their former agents that have resettled in UK territory however, including another high profile incident involving a rare radioactive isotope, Polonium 210, being used to poison Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
Just as they did in 2006, Russia has denied any involvement in the incident.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press