Your daily dose of Science and Tech

How Novichok nerve agents work

Novichok, the nerve agent that was used on the former former agent Serghei Skripal and his daughter, Julia, is a much stronger chemical weapon than VX, the substance used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean dictator’s step-brother.

Unlike other known neurotoxins which are used in the form of vapor or liquid, Novichok is mostly used as an ultra-fine powder.

How does this chemical weapon work?

Novichok is made up of two components that become toxic when they get mixed. In their pure form, neurotoxic agents like Novichok have no color or odor, making it extremely difficult to detect. Any person who comes in contact with this toxic substance through the skin, breathes or ingests particles will become ill immediately.

Some types of Novichok agents are prepared in powder form, others can be obtained locally by mixing two other less toxic compounds that can be introduced more easily across the border.

That’s why Novichok is more difficult to identify than Sarin gas or VX, but it is more sophisticated and more dangerous, explains Gary Stephens of the University of Reading.

After entering the body, the agent disturbs chemical “signals” that exist between tissues and organs, causing an overload of this process, which leads to loss of control of the muscles and gradually to all bodily functions.

Novichok nerve agents have the following side effects: difficulty in breathing, increased salivation, seizures, paralysis and, in some cases, death.

Earlier this year, two British citizens were exposed to this poison. British Prime Minister Theresa May said in the London Parliament that “…the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens.”

Furthermore, Theresa May gave Moscow a deadline to provide explanations to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OIAC).