On March 12, in a speech to the House of Commons, Theresa May ruled that “it is very likely that Russia was responsible” for the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. In front of the deputies, the Prime Minister explained that the nerve agent used was a “military grade” substance, from the group of “Novichok” nerve agents developed by the USSR.
The Novichoks are not just one substance but rather a group of nerve agents, each with different properties. They were developed by the Soviet Union between 1970 and 1980 during the Cold War. According to some sources, the production of these innervating agents continued after the collapse of the USSR. Moscow has reportedly never reported Novichoks and/or its compounds to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, which oversees a treaty banning the use of chemical weapons.
Technically, Novichoks agents are fourth-generation neurotoxic chemicals. They are considered to be far more lethal than “G family agents”, such as Sarin, or “family V agents,” like VX. The Novichoks , in all likelihood, are in the form of ultra-fine powder, unlike other nerve agents that are in gaseous or Novichoks form, such as VX, according to Michelle Carlin, Lecturer in Forensic Medicine and Analytical Chemistry at the University of Northumbria, UK.
These Novichoks agents would consist of two distinct non-toxic components that, when mixed, form a neurotoxic agent. Their mechanism of action is very similar to that of other known neurotoxic substances. However, they would be much more harmful. Normally, our nervous system sends signals and information to our organs, tissues, etc. But in contact with a Novichoks agent, this communication is disturbed and altered. Too much information is sent to our organs, creating an overload. This signal overload then leads to loss of muscle control. Then arise breathing difficulties, increased salivation, convulsions, paralysis. Death can be very fast depending on the degree of exposure, explains Carlin..
Currently, our knowledge is still fragmented concerning Novichoks agents, which are considered as the most recently developed neurotoxic agents. The most serious effects of Novichoks are only for those who received the highest dose or the longest exposure. At Salisbury, March 4th, it is very unlikely that any effect could be detected on passers-by. However, preventive measures of decontamination were advised by the authorities to people who were not far from Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Then again, the long-term effects of these Novichoks agents are poorly documented. But it is thought that they could lead to much greater lesions and sequelae, and these could not be treated, unlike other neurotoxic agents for which there are treatments or antidotes.