By Bénédicte Laferrère, Consultant at IB Consultancy
Since the Salisbury attack in 2018, the Novichoks, translated as ‘newcomer’ in Russian, became a trendy subject despite until recently not being a well-known threat. Although their use is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 that prohibits the large-scale use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons, the Novichoks’ component parts are nevertheless not listed among the banned chemicals, making the development process essentially legal and untraceable. Therefore, when former double agent Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench, the presence of this chemical agent could not be determined with certainty.
Mystery still surrounds this nerve agent, today considered more potent than the more commonly used VX. In fact, in 2013 a Report from the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the third review conference for the Chemical Weapons Convention states that “the name Novichok is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB nevertheless states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of ‘the Novichoks.”
Until their revelation in the 1990s the Novichoks were completely unknown to the world, thus achieving their primary purpose: evading detection. It was Doctor Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian chemist, who then disclosed their existence to the media. He then ran away to the United States where he published a book called “State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program.” Most of the information we have about the Novichoks today still comes from that book, as no real scientific data on the substances has so far been compiled. The reason is simple: with all its compounds being legal, the ingredients never have to be declared to international organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
What are the Novichoks?
Novichoks are part of the well-known family of nerve agents (NA), with the first NAs having been produced in the 1930s. The Novichoks are said to be the most powerful nerve agents ever developed. They were created in the 1970s during the Cold War by the Soviet Union through the program called FOLIANT. Nerve agents like VX and sarin were too easy to detect, which led to the need for a powerful weapon that could be transported through enemy lines without detection. It was said to be so toxic that it could pass through NATO’s HazMat suits at the time.
Although the chemical composition is only slightly different from VX, the Novichoks can be five to ten times more lethal. As fourth-generation agents (FGAs), the Novichoks are made with a unique organophosphorus (synthetic organic compounds such as pesticides) composition. The Novichoks can take different forms – usually gas, but also liquid – which allows delivery by missiles, bombs, spray and cluster spray.
How the Novichoks work
The consequences of the Novichoks can be very devastating: when the nerve agent comes into contact with the skin or is inhaled, it attacks the cholinergic system (nervous system) which transmits signals between the brain and the muscle tissue. As a result, the heart rate slows down and the airways become restricted, preventing breathing and thus triggering convulsions. The Novichoks can cause death by asphyxiation, and delayed medical treatment or large-scale exposure can lead to a debilitating neuropathy.
Countering and Detecting the Novichoks
As very potent nerve agents, the Novichoks are not easily detected or treated. Few treatment methods exist, with the existing ones not necessarily providing a 100% certainty of success. This is due to the various forms the Novichoks can take and the many different combinations of compounds that can lead to their creation. Therefore, exposure to Novichok is considered fatal unless it is aggressively managed. As mentioned before, it is believed that more than 100 different forms exist today. In any case, heavy protective equipment is required during treatment: PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) with a breathing apparatus will prevent any inhalation, ingestion or contact of the skin with the nerve agent, at least until the assessment of the situation is complete. Both respiratory and skin protection are needed, since Novichok takes effects through inhalation and skin contact.
Symptoms in each case and they involve:
· Excessive constriction of the pupils;
· Convulsions, loss of consciousness or even coma;
· Wheezing, shortness of breath and excessive fluid secretion;
· High blood pressure and an elevated heartbeat at first, followed by low blood pressure and a decreased heart rate;
· Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea;
· And a profuse sweating.
Those symptoms help identify the substance, which can be confirmed using a Mass spectrometer with a gas chromatograph (GC/MS). Mass spectrometers can provide a clear identification of the agents. The device takes a picture of the molecule and compares it to a library integrated in the system. Although a clear identification can be done with this device, the process nevertheless takes time.
General detection of chemicals can be made using a device with IMS (Ion Mass Spectrometry) technology via a three-step methodology – the ionization of the materials, mass selective separation, and ion detection. IMS technology provides fast detection, but the results are not precise as they are not able to identify the nature of the chemicals used. IMS is used for simple detection and – unlike the MS – can only be used for gas analysis. Simple M8 paper can be used to detect Novichoks in liquid form.
The medical treatment applicable to the Novichoks follows the general treatment procedures for nerve agents. The treatment is twofold, starting with direct decontamination of the victim. Thorough decontamination using a liquid decontaminant is required to avoid the expansion of the contamination by the nerve agent. All casualties must be decontaminated before being transported off-site. Decontamination must be performed based on the triage for chemical exposures. Casualties should be divided according to the level of contamination and the urgency of the required treatment:
· Immediate: the victim’s life is clearly at stake;
· Delayed: the victim suspects exposure or has had atropine treatment already;
· Minimal: the victim can still walk and talk.
Secondly, the antidotal therapy must follow decontamination. The most common antidotal therapy usually consists of a dose of atropine that will help reinstate the signals between the brain and the muscles. It is however important to keep in mind that atropine can be poisonous in high doses. The other option is the usage of pralidoxime which allows the victim to breathe freely whilst allowing for the drainage of lung secretion. Medical treatment does exist, but no real cure is known yet, only antidotes that will simply stop the action of the poison. Heavy treatment is still required, commonly involving a long term stay in emergency care, as seen on the victims of the Salisbury attacks.
For first responders on-site a simple treatment consisting of an autoinjector is available, containing a dose of atropine that the responder can use himself.
Overall, a lot of research is still needed on the subject, ensuring the development of sufficient capacity to mitigate potential future incidents involving the Novichoks. Some industries took on the role and are presently working on developing different treatments.