A Russian nerve agent has been making the headlines after the assassination attempt of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The former was a Russian military intelligence officer charged spying on his own, and the latter was his daughter. After some prison time, Mr. Skripal took his daughter and they were traded to England where they could be safe. Now hundreds of troops are supporting local law enforcement and EMS personnel to contain and investigate the release of this nerve agent. Prime Minister Theresa May has pointed a finger at the Russian government, and said that the nerve agent in question is called “Novichok.”

How does Novichok measure up to other nerve agents?

There are three classes of nerve agents — the G-series, V-series and the Novichok agents. The G-series, developed by the Germans, includes soman and sarin; the V-series includes the famous VX gas, along with several others. The Novichok agent is a different category entirely. In Russian, it means “newcomer,” and it’s specifically designed to counter NATO technology, able to defeat both modern detection and protection mechanisms. It has been reported to be 10 times more effective than soman, and 5-8 times more effective than VX.

Novichok agents are also binary, meaning that you have to mix two separate chemicals before it activates, but that process can be done in the field. The separated chemical ingredients are not toxic at all, and therefore draw much less attention to themselves. This gives the agent a huge advantage, as the carrier doesn’t have to travel across borders with an active nerve agent in their pocket. It also makes detection of the final product difficult, since the final product hasn’t even been made yet.

What does Novichok do to the body?

It is generally dispersed as a fine powder, though there could be a number of ways a carrier on the ground could disperse a powder. Details on the dispersal technique regarding Sergei and Yulia Skripal are still unknown.

Once it hits the body, it penetrates the skin and can be breathed into the lungs. The victim can expect to show symptoms in under two minutes, often within 30 seconds. However, depending on how the agent is weaponized, delayed onset is possible.

The human body typically sends signals relaxing its muscles, but a nerve agent like Novichok essentially interrupts this process, and those muscles continuously contract. That is easy to picture in the sense of our larger muscles like our shoulders or biceps, but the weapon also affects organs and other essential bodily functions. This kind of seizing can cause tearing in the eyes, for example; it can have detrimental effects to the diaphragm and even the heart, often leading to fatal asphyxiation or cardiac arrest.

If the nerve agent does not kill its victim, it could very likely still cause permanent damage. One Russian scientist who was accidentally exposed to the substance narrowly survived — he lost his ability to walk, developed “chronic weakness in his arms,” damaged his liver and gave him seizures, among other mental issues stemming from the incident.

Treatment is very difficult, for all nerve agents, but specifically to Novichok. Due to the severity and speed of Novichok, the combination of atropine and pralidoxime is not nearly as effective as it would be with many other nerve agents.