Novichok agent

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Novichok (Russian: новичок meaning roughly "newcomer", "newbie" or "new guy") is a series of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.[1] Allegedly these are the most deadly nerve agents ever made, with some variants possibly five to eight times more potent than VX.[2][3] They were designed as part of the Soviet program codenamed "Foliant".[4] Initially designated K-84 and later renamed A-230, the Novichok family of analogs comprises more than a hundred structural variants.[5] Of all the variants, the most promising from a military standpoint was A-232 (Novichok-5).[6]

While Novichok agents have never been used on the battlefield, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that such an agent was used in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.[7]

Design objectives

These agents were designed to achieve four objectives:[8][9]

  • To be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment;
  • To defeat NATO chemical protective gear;
  • To be safer to handle;
  • To circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors, classes of chemical and physical form.

All these objectives were claimed to have been achieved.

Some of these agents are binary weapons, in which precursors for the nerve agents are mixed in a munition to produce the agent just prior to its use. Because the precursors are generally significantly less hazardous than the agents themselves, this technique makes handling and transporting the munitions a great deal simpler. Additionally, precursors to the agents are usually much easier to stabilize than the agents themselves, so this technique also made it possible to increase the shelf life of the agents. This has the disadvantage that careless preparation may produce a non-optimal agent. During the 1980s and 1990s, binary versions of several Soviet agents were developed and are designated as "Novichok" agents.


Extremely potent fourth-generation chemical weapons were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia from the 1970s until the early 1990s, according to a publication by two chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov in Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992.[10][11] The publication appeared just on the eve of Russia's signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. According to Mirzayanov, the Russian Military Chemical Complex (MCC) was using defense conversion money received from the West for development of a chemical warfare facility.[2][3] Mirzayanov made his disclosure out of environmental concerns. He was a head of a counter-intelligence department and performed measurements outside the chemical weapons facilities to make sure that foreign spies could not detect any traces of production. To his horror, the levels of deadly substances were 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration.[3] (A full account by Mirzayanov is available online.[12])

The existence of Novichok agents was admitted by Russian military industrial complex authorities when they brought a treason case against Mirzayanov. According to expert witness testimonies prepared for the KGB by three scientists, Novichok and other related chemical agents had indeed been produced and therefore the disclosure by Mirzayanov represented high treason.[13]

Vil Mirzayanov was arrested on 22 October 1992 and sent to Lefortovo prison for divulging state secrets. He was released later because "not one of the formulas or names of poisonous substances in the Moscow News article was new to the Soviet press, nor were locations ... of testing sites revealed."[3] According to Yevgenia Albats, "the real state secret revealed by Fyodorov and Mirzayanov was that generals had lied — and were still lying — to both the international community and their fellow citizens."[3] He now lives in the U.S.[14]

Description of Novichok agents

Examples of structures claimed as Novichok agents[15][16][17][18]

The first description of these agents was provided by Mirzayanov.[12] Dispersed in an ultra-fine powder instead of a gas or a vapor, they have unique qualities. A binary agent was then created that would mimic the same properties but would either be manufactured using materials legal under the CWT[14] or be undetectable by treaty regime inspections.[19] The most potent compounds from this family, novichok-5 and novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX.

One of the key manufacturing sites was the Soviet State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) in Nukus, Uzbekistan.[20] Small, experimental batches of the weapons may have been tested on the nearby Ustyurt plateau.[19] It may also have been tested in a research centre in Krasnoarmeysk near Moscow.[20] Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been working with the government of the United States to dismantle and decontaminate the sites where the Novichok agents and other chemical weapons were tested and developed.[19][20]

Mirzayanov gives somewhat different structures for Novichok agents in his autobiography to those which have been identified by Western experts. He makes clear that a large number of compounds were made, and many of the less potent derivatives were reported in the open literature as new organophosphate insecticides, so that the secret chemical weapons program could be disguised as legitimate pesticide research.

The agents are reportedly capable of being delivered as a liquid, aerosol or gas via a variety of systems, including artillery shells, bombs, missiles and spraying devices.[20]


A wide range of potential structures have been reported. These all feature the classical organophosphorus core, which is most commonly depicted as being a phosphoramidate or phosphonate, often fluorinated (c.f. monofluorophosphate). The organic groups are subject to more variety; however, a common substituent is phosgene oxime or analogues thereof. This is a potent chemical weapon in it own right, specifically as a nettle agent, and would be expected to increase the harm done by the Novichok agent.


As nerve agents, the Novichok agents belong to the class of organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. These chemical compounds inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, preventing the normal breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine concentrations then increase at neuromuscular junctions to cause involuntary contraction of all muscles. This then leads to respiratory and cardiac arrest (as the victim's heart and diaphragm muscles no longer function normally) and finally death from heart failure or suffocation as copious fluid secretions fill the victim's lungs.[21]

The use of a fast-acting peripheral anticholinergic drug such as atropine can block the receptors where acetylcholine acts to prevent poisoning (as in the treatment for poisoning by other acetylcholinesterase inhibitors). Atropine, however, is difficult to administer safely, because its effective dose for nerve agent poisoning is close to the dose at which patients suffer severe side effects such as changes in heart rate and thickening of the bronchial secretions which fill the lungs of someone suffering nerve agent poisoning, so that suctioning of these secretions and other advanced life support techniques may be necessary in addition to administration of atropine to treat nerve agent poisoning.[21]

In the treatment of nerve agent poisoning, atropine is most often administered along with pralidoxime, which reactivates acetylcholinesterase which has been inactivated by phosphorylation by an organophosphorus nerve agent and relieves the respiratory muscle paralysis caused by some nerve agents. Pralidoxime is not effective in reactivating acetylcholinesterase inhibited by some older nerve agents such as soman[21] or the Novichok nerve agents, described in the literature as being up to 8 times more toxic than nerve agent VX.[22]

The agents may cause lasting nerve damage, resulting in permanent disablement of victims, according to Russian scientists.[23] Their effect on humans was demonstrated by the accidental exposure of Andrei Zheleznyakov, one of the scientists involved in their development, to the residue of an unspecified Novichok agent while working in a Moscow laboratory in May 1987. He was critically injured and took ten days to recover consciousness after the incident. He lost the ability to walk and was treated at a secret clinic in Leningrad for three months afterwards. The agent caused permanent harm, with effects that included "chronic weakness in his arms, a toxic hepatitis that gave rise to cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy, spells of severe depression, and an inability to read or concentrate that left him totally disabled and unable to work." He never recovered and died in July 1992 after five years of deteriorating health.[24]

Use as a weapon

Novichok agents have never been used on the battlefield.[17] On 12 March 2018, the UK Government stated that a Novichok agent had been used in an attack in the English city of Salisbury on 4 March 2018 in an attempt to kill former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.[25] British Prime Minister Theresa May said in Parliament: "Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."[25]

After the attack, 21 members of the emergency services and public were checked for possible exposure, and three were hospitalised. As of 12 March, one police officer remained in hospital.[25] 500 members of the public were advised to decontaminate their possessions to prevent possible long-term exposure, and 180 members of the military and 18 vehicles were deployed to assist with decontamination at multiple locations in and around Salisbury. The exact location of the attack has not been released.[26][25][27]

See also


  1. ^ Tucker, J. B.; War of Nerves; Anchor Books; New York; 2006; pp 232-233.
  2. ^ a b Vadim J. Birstein. The Perversion Of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science. Westview Press (2004), page 110. ISBN 0-8133-4280-5
  3. ^ a b c d e Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia — Past, Present, and Future, 1994. ISBN 0-374-18104-7 (see pages 325-328)
  4. ^ Tucker, J. B.; War of Nerves; Anchor Books; New York; 2006; pp 231.
  5. ^ Tucker, J. B.; War of Nerves; Anchor Books; New York; 2006; pp 233.
  6. ^ Tucker, J. B.; War of Nerves; Anchor Books; New York; 2006; pp 253.
  7. ^ Barry, Ellen; Pérez-Peña, Richard (12 March 2018). "Britain Blames Russia for Nerve Agent Attack on Former Spy". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  8. ^ Salem, Harry; Katz, Sidney A., eds. (2014). Inhalation Toxicology (3rd ed.). CRC Press. pp. 498–499. ISBN 978-1-466-55273-9.
  9. ^ Kendall, Ronald J.; Presley, Steven M.; Austin, Galen P.; Smith, Philip N. (2008). Advances in Biological and Chemical Terrorism Countermeasures. CRC Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-1-420-07654-7.
  10. ^ Darling, Robert G.; Noste, Erin E. (2016). "Future Biological and Chemical Weapons". In Ciottone, Gregory R. (ed.). Ciottone's Disaster Medicine (Second ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 489–498. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-28665-7.00080-7.
  11. ^ Fedorov, Lev and Vil Mirzayanov, "Poisoned Politics," Moskovskiye Novosti weekly No. 39, 1992. Much of this information was published earlier in the newspaper "Top Secret" run by Artyom Borovik in September 1991. However the KGB did not arrest Mirzayanov earlier due to political turmoil in Russia at this time, according to a book by Yevgenia Albats.
  12. ^ a b "Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects; Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider's View". Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, D.C. 13 October 1995.
  13. ^ "the talk [by Mirzayanov] about binary weapons was no more than a verbal construct, an argument ex adverso, and only the MCC [Russian Military Chemical Complex] could corroborate or refute this natural assumption. By entangling V. S. Mirzayanov in investigation, the MCC confirmed the stated hypothesis, advancing it to the ranks of proven facts." [1]
  14. ^ a b David Hoffman (16 August 1998). "Wastes of War: Soviets Reportedly Built Weapon Despite Pact". The Washington Post. Retrieved 20 July 2007.
  15. ^ 'Compendium of Chemical Warfare Agents' by Steven L. Hoenig pages 79-80 ISBN 0-387-34626-0, ISBN 978-0-387-34626-7
  16. ^ Vil S Mirzayanov. State Secrets. An Insider's Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program. (2009) pp142-145, 179-180. ISBN 978-1-4327-2566-2
  17. ^ a b D Hank Ellison. Handbook of Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents. CRC Press, 2007. ISBN 9781420003291
  18. ^ Gupta, Ramesh C (ed) (2015). Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents. Cambridge, MA, United States: Academic Press. pp. 339–340. ISBN 9780128004944.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  19. ^ a b c Louise Hidalgo (9 August 1999). "US dismantles chemical weapons". BBC News. Retrieved 20 July 2007.
  20. ^ a b c d Croddy, Eric A.; Wirtz, James J.; Larsen, Jeffrey A., eds. (2001). Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Essential Reference Guide. ABC-CLIO. pp. 201–202. ISBN 9781851094905.
  21. ^ a b c Meridian Medical Technologies, Inc. (30 September 2009). "LABEL: DUODOTE- atropine and pralidoxime chloride". National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, United States. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  22. ^ Gupta, Ramesh C (ed) (2015). Handbook of Toxicology of Chemical Warfare Agents. Cambridge, MA, United States: Academic Press. pp. 339–340. ISBN 9780128004944.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  23. ^ Stewart, Charles Edward (2006). Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook. Jones & Bartlett Learning. ISBN 9780763724252.
  24. ^ Tucker, Jonathan (2007). War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 273. ISBN 978-0-307-43010-6.
  25. ^ a b c d "Russian spy: Highly likely Moscow behind attack, says Theresa May". BBC News. 12 March 2018. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  26. ^ "Military deployed after spy poisoning". BBC News. 9 March 2018. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  27. ^ "What are Novichok nerve agents?". BBC News. 12 March 2018. Retrieved 13 March 2018.

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