The US on Monday announced that it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, with other 18 countries planning to follow the suit. In total, 100 Russian diplomats are being removed. Photo: AP
The US on Monday announced that it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, with other 18 countries planning to follow the suit. In total, 100 Russian diplomats are being removed. Photo: AP

The Russian nerve agent that spooked Europe

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were earlier this month poisoned to death by Novichok, a nerve agent developed in the former Soviet Union, leading to a worldwide backlash against Russia

It was the first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II. Earlier this month, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who was convicted and imprisoned in Russia for working as a double agent, and his daughter were found unresponsive and slumped on a shopping-centre bench in Salisbury, England. UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the two had been poisoned with Novichok, a “military grade" nerve agent developed by Russia. Russian authorities have rejected May’s claims.

What is Novichok?

The word refers to the fourth generation of solid nerve agents developed in the former Soviet Union. These so-called binary agents (they become lethal only when combined) were first made as ultrafine powders but can be turned into liquids and gas. The toxins belong to a chemical family called organophosphates, and as they’re related to pesticides, their development was sometimes cloaked as an agricultural effort.

How does it work and what does it do?

Skripal was found foaming at the mouth, struggling to breathe and making strange movements with his hands. Agents like Novichok can enter the body by being eaten or inhaled, or through the skin, and block the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down a nervous-system protein called acetylcholine. The resulting buildup interferes with the brain’s communication with muscles and glands throughout the body, resulting in “cholinergic syndrome": uncontrolled secretions in the lungs and mouth, diarrhoea and vomiting, sweating, convulsions, delusions, racing heartbeat and generalized weakness that can progress to paralysis, suffocation and death.

What could doctors do?

Poisoning with organophosphates can be treated with atropine, a drug that blocks acetylcholine, although it isn’t an antidote.

Why does this point to Russia?

The agents that make Novichok were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union during the later years of the Cold War. There’s also the choice of target—Skripal sold identities of Russian agents to Britain’s MI6, and was released by Russia in a 2010 swap of ex-spies.

What is the fallout?

The US said on Monday it would expel 60 Russian diplomats. UK’s May said 18 countries, including 14 from the EU, had announced plans to expel Russian officials. In total, 100 Russian diplomats are being removed, the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War. A Kremlin spokesman said the West was making a “mistake" and that President Vladimir Putin would make a decision about Russia’s response.

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