Inside the nerve agents that are at the center of the Novichok poisoning

novichokCC: Geralt at Pixabay

As an event that’s captured global attention, yet has remained shrouded in secrecy, the Salisbury Novichok poisoning is truly unique. When you read about the nerve agent in the news, it feels as though you’re digesting a spy story. Unfortunately, nothing about the event is fictional and there’s no sign of Jack Bauer coming to save the day.

While plenty of news outlets are exploring the political side of the Novichok attacks, it’s handy to understand what it is. To do that, you need to learn a little about its history.

What is Novichok and where did it come from?

As Andrea Sella (a professor of inorganic chemistry at University London) states, Novichok is poorly researched. What we do know is the word Novichok is Russian for newcomer. The nerve agent first emerged in the 1970s, and the term refers to a family of substances rather than one single culprit. Its existence didn’t become global knowledge until chemist Dr. Vil Mirzayanov defected from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in the 1980s. He later published a book detailing its recipe. Since then, the claims of Mirzayanov have been rubbished by fellow Russian scientists.

As a fourth-generation nerve agent, Novichok is difficult to identify. It is quick-acting and odorless, much like Sarin and XV. However, certain variants are five times more toxic than the aforementioned agents, making them particularly dangerous when released in a public environment.

Unfortunately, experts remain divided on how long Novichok can last. While Dr. Mirzayanov claims that it will dissipate fairly quickly, others believe it can remain in the environment for months or years. The scientist who claims to have invented the nerve agent says it is stable, which supports the theories of those who believe its presence is longlasting.

Although some nerve agents from the family come in liquid form, others are powder. As a result, it’s thought that they are easy to release into an environment without immediate detection.

How does the nerve agent work?

Nerve agents, including Novichok, block an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE). When the enzyme is blocked, acetylcholine gathers in synapses that the nerves deliver signals through. Essentially, this blocks the nerve signals that travel to muscles and organs, resulting in severe symptoms. One of the first signs is excessive pupil constriction, followed by seizures, vomiting, paralysis, and an inability to breathe.

Globally, nerve agents are associated with the deaths of politicians and those who stand against certain regimes. For example, it’s believed that the brother of Kim Jong-Un was poisoned using XV. In the U.S. Army, military personnel attempt to recognize its presence and carry medications that could offer some protection. Said medications include Diazepam, which is an anticonvulsant with a longer half-life than many other benzodiazepines. Atropine is also popular, as it blocks acetylcholine receptors, but it won’t reverse the effects of ACH that’s already bonded.

Biologically, the human body struggles to outwit the effects of nerve agents. Natural responses rely on erythrocyte and enzyme turnover times. Therefore, if those who are exposed to the agent don’t receive prompt preventative interventions, the chances of survival are incredibly slim.

How did Novichok enter the UK?

Interestingly, some Novichok types can be transported as binary weapons. In other words, it’s possible to carry different components without detection. Even while adhering to customs laws that restrict liquid carriage, it’s almost impossible to detect someone who intends to manufacture Novichok at a later date. The components don’t feature on IATO’s banned substances list, which means customs staff must rely on international databases and the cooperation of different nations in sharing information. This, in part, explains why it’s difficult to travel to certain countries without facing challenges.

While the nerve agent doesn’t pose a broad threat at present, it’s easy to see where panic is stemming from. As international investigations unfold, there may be opportunities to learn more about how it works.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.