By Mr. Frank Rando, CBRNE Protective & Biomedical Countermeasures subject matter expert, University of Arizona and Ms. Dee Ruelas, Clinical Specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services, USA
The Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States was never limited to the research and development of nuclear weapons and the race for nuclear superiority.
The Soviet military readiness posture also included the pursuit of biological and chemical weapons, including “fourth generation” chemical weapons and related mass casualty weapons, such as biotoxins and biological response modulators (BRMs). The Biopreparat (BWAs / toxins) and Foilant (CWAs / BRMs) programs were both components of a ubiquitous and elaborate, large scale military-industrial scheme, much of it under the guise of legitimate pharmaceutical, industrial and academic / scientific establishments.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the US raced ahead of the game with the nerve agents Sarin and VX, respectively, with full expectation that the Soviet chemical warfare (CW) program was being operated in full vigor. In 1969, following President Nixon’s policy abolishing the research, development and production of offensive biological and chemical weapons, the US halted its CW program. While the US froze its CW capacity and capabilities, the Soviets marched on with their offensive biological and chemical weapons programs.
As stated above, the USSR, in pursuit of enhanced and novel CWAs, implemented an offensive R&D program known as “Foilant”, which evolved under the typical Soviet cloak of secrecy and its propensity for disinformation and denial.
The brilliant former Soviet chemist Vil Mirzayanov was one of the senior scientific research leaders attached to the Foilant program, and he has given an insightful view on the Soviet chemical warfare complex via personal interviews and his own account, in his book State Secrets. Mirzayanov was subsequently arrested by the Russian Security Service for disclosing state secrets.
The nature of the Soviet bureaucracy was the impetus of the Foilant program and it was the main driving force of the scientific efforts of the military-industrial complex and the large scale production of both biological warfare agents (BWAs and chemical warfare agents (CWAs), including the fourth generation chemical weapons.
The Foilant program led to the development of the highly neurotoxic ” Novichok ” (loosely translated in Russian as (“newcomer”).
The first Russian binary agent, Novichok-5, was derived from “V-gas”. V-gas is a VX-type analogue also known as Substance-33. A test batch of 5-10 metric tons of Novichok-5 was produced at a pilot-scale plant in Volograd and field tested at the chemical warfare testing ground at Nukus.
The Russian Federation Science Center State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) developed a second binary form of Substance 33 that has no established name, but which Mirazyanov called Novichok-#. This agent was also field tested at Nukus and adopted as a chemical warfare agent in 1990.
Allegedly, and as per Mirzayanov, Russia developed a third binary agent called Novichok-7, which has a similar volatility to soman but is about 10 times as effective.
Novichoks make it to the news: Kim Jong Nam and Skripal
The Novichok compounds are referenced by a multitude of code names including Substance 33, A-230, A-232 A- 234, Novichok-5, and Novichok-7 that are designed to be deployed via binary munitions.
These chemicals are at least as toxic and persistent as the most lethal nerve agent, VX, and some are purported as being 10 times as toxic. Nerve agents have reappeared as a poison for specific acts of targeted assassination. Most recently, a nerve agent (VX) and a fourth generation Novichok CWA; have been used in assassination plots.
In early 2017, a man known as Kim Chol traveled from Macau to the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi on 13 February Kim Chol was returning via Kuala Lumpur International Airport (on this article’s cover) a female approached him from behind and splashed liquid onto the victim’s face another female assailant covered his face with a cloth that was damp with a liquid shortly thereafter the victim fell ill and was attended to by airport medical staff. The victim complained of difficulty breathing, displayed pinpointed pupils, was sweating, and experiencing excessive salivation. Despite emergency medical treatment with the use of atropine, the victim died in transport to definitive medical care. The victim known as Kim Chol was identified as Kim Jong Nam, the brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Subsequent toxicology testing revealed that the victim had very low acetylcholinesterase levels, indicating that he had been poisoned by an organophosphate or carbomate compound i.e., a nerve agent. Of considerable concern to the international community, including Malaysia, as the result of the analysis of the substance revealed that it was the chemical warfare agent known as VX.
Interestingly, contained in Kim Jong Nam’s bag were twelve vials of atropine, a primary treatment for the cholinergic toxidrome produced by organophosphate and nerve agent poisoning.
In 2018, the United Kingdom it was the stage for a strange set of events that led to and attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. On two March 2018, two Russian men arrived from Moscow at London’s Gatwick Airport. On 3 March, the Russian men traveled by train to Salisbury.
This assassination team circumvented the normal route to London and went to Salisbury where their mission was to apply a minuscule amount of the Novichok nerve agent A- 234 to the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s home. On 3 March, a Russian woman got off a plane from Moscow and travel to Salisbury she arrived at a non-distinctive address in a normal suburban neighborhood in Salisbury where she met her father, Sergei Skripal.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter stayed in the house the morning of Sunday, 4 March that afternoon. They then traveled by vehicle to the center of town and proceeded to walk to the nearby Bishop’s Mill pub. At approximately 2:20 PM, they arrived at Zizzi’s, an Italian restaurant, where they ate lunch. They later left to sit in a nearby park where they bought bread and fed the ducks. After 4:00 PM, the pair had fallen ill and were drenched with perspiration. The male victim had vision difficulties and the female had collapsed.
The city of Salisbury has seen drug overdoses before so none of this behavior was viewed as being unusual. In reality, the couple were suffering from nerve agent toxicity due to exposure to the Novichok compound, which created an international incident and generated a huge multiagency and multidisciplinary response, including Britain’s biological and chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down.
The Toxicology and Characteristics of the Novichoks (and other nerve agents). How deadly are these agents?
The popular belief is that nerve agents are the deadliest substances in the world and that they cause immediate death. Neither is particularly true and such accounts lack a sense of context and proportion as well as scientific fact.
Generally, in toxicology, “the dose makes the poison” and the dose is the result of concentration times the exposure time.
Most biological toxins, such as botulism toxin and certain reptilian, shellfish and marine organism toxins are profoundly more toxic than any synthetic chemical compounds, including the various militarized neurotoxic agents , e.g. VX , soman and the Novichok family of compounds .
The computational aspects of how much of a particular agent can kill a person or populations are variable and depend upon numerous factors and usually lethality data is extrapolated from animal studies. The lethal concentration 50 or LCt50, is the concentration of an ambient vapor required to kill 50% of the test population.
While the nerve agents, particularly the Novichok compounds are profoundly toxic, in a chemical warfare context, there are other factors which must be considered such as meteorological conditions, topography, time of day, occupancy of structures, physicochemical properties of the agents themselves, rapid availability of community wide emergency medical capacity and capabilities, including forward deployed antidotal therapy, among other considerations.
The human nervous system is an incredibly complex and vast network of cells that connect the brain to every other structure of the body. This amazing communication network handles two-way traffic mediated by neurochemicals such as acetylcholine and electrical impulses that occur in a nanosecond.
Special Considerations for 4th Generation CWAs
Due to the toxicity and lethality of the Novichok compounds, administering the appropriate treatment quickly is of utmost importance. These fourth generation agents ( FGAs) share similar characteristics with other nerve agents , however, present a unique challenge in terms of, among others, the potential for a delay in onset of symptoms. These are fairly novel “weapons of warfare” and their use can be indiscriminate and quite subtle. Unlike VX, which can be defeated quickly with injectable antidotes, the Novichok agents are at least as resistant as soman (GD).
The Novichok agents are thought to be far more difficult to detect during manufacturing and far easier to manufacture covertly, because they can be made with common industrial chemicals in relatively simple pesticide factories.
Mr. Frank Rando currently serves as an allied health programs educator / lead instructor and healthcare emergency preparedness/medical readiness /public health preparedness and tactical, operational – disaster medicine and homeland security Subject Matter Expert, educator , instructor and curriculum designer. He has served in instructional, guest speaker and consultative roles for DHS-FEMA, various components of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, DoD, industry, academia, health, safety and regulatory entities, emergency services organizations and healthcare.
He recently served during the COVID-19 public health emergency as a clinician and clinical researcher and also served in medical and health care support as a clinician for US Customs and Border Protection.
Frank is also an experienced clinician, first responder and an occupational – environmental health scientist with real world experience in hazardous materials management, hazards and pollution control, biosafety, industrial, environmental and inhalation toxicology, environmental epidemiology, exposure and risk assessment and emergency response.
Frank has also received advanced training in Integrated Biological -Chemical Response from the US Army -Dugway West Desert Test Center and the National Ebola and Special Pathogens Training Centers.
Frank’s experience includes public safety roles in law enforcement, pre-hospital medicine/EMS and military duty as a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical/CBRN Specialist ,NBC medical defense instructor Special Forces Medical Sergeant, Dive Medical Technician ,Intelligence Sergeant and Medical Intelligence Analyst.
Ms. Dee Ruelas possesses over 35 years of dedicated professional experience in various roles in public safety/ emergency services, teaching and instruction, healthcare, environmental health and safety, emergency preparedness, community resiliency and Christian ministry. Dee was also a decorated public safety-emergency medical communications specialist for the City of Tucson Fire Department and worked for the Tucson Municipal Court, where one of her roles was serving as the Fire Prevention and General Safety Officer for the municipal courts system.
Currently, Dee has been serving as a clinical specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services and served as a medical and healthcare support specialist for US Customs and Border Protection.
Dee is the former Director of the City of Tucson Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and is a DHS-Certified CERT Instructor, National Association of Emergency Medical Technician Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) Instructor and a Certified Stop the Bleed Instructor.
Dee is also trained and serves as an experienced instructor and consultant in hazardous materials, incident command, explosives recognition, medical decontamination, active shooter countermeasures, emerging infectious diseases, mental health first aid, refugee medicine and general health and safety, including roles as a subject matter expert, guest speaker, and instructor for the State of Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
She has also been trained by the National Ebola Training Center and the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Dee also is the owner and senior proprietor for Teach 2 Prepare, a consultancy and training entity.