Amesbury poisoning: What is Novichok

Amesbury poisoning: What is Novichok?

Police at the scene in Amesbury where a man and woman were poisoned. Image: Getty

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Police have confirmed that a man and a woman from Wiltshire, who are in a critical condition, have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok.

Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, of Muggleto Road, Amesbury, collapsed at home and tests have shown that they were poisoned by the substance. 

It is the same substance used in the attack and poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.

What is Novichok?

A group of nerve agents which are more potent and lethal than VX or sarin.

They are made of two separate non-toxic substances that work as a nerve agent when brought together.

Dr Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, said: "Novichok is not really very different from all the classics, you've got the same basic chemical framework at the heart of it.

Read more: Yulia Skripal gives her first public statement since poisoning

"I'm not sure it's ever really been used. There's not much experience of seeing these things, they would have recognised it was some sort of nerve agent, which is part of the reason for the delay [in identifying it]."

How long does it last?

Dr Sella said it is "very disturbing" that the agent has been found four months after the first attack, but Novichok is designed not to break down.

"These things are designed to be persistent," he said.

"They don't evaporate, they don't break up in water. The last four months have been dry so I suspect they can be there for quite a long time."

If the substance was sealed, perhaps in a drinks bottle, then it could take even longer to break down, he added.

Why was it created?

Novichok, which means newcomer in Russian, was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s as a new kind of chemical weapon that would be harder to detect, more potent than existing nerve agents and exempt from the Chemical Weapons Treaty.

Dr Sella said: "Novichok agents are ones that were kept very quiet by the Russians and developed to try and gain advantage against the more conventional things they knew Western governments had."

What does it do?

Officers in protective clothing in Salisbury in March after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Novichok and other nerve agents attack the nervous system and stop chemical messages getting around the body. It can be inhaled as a fine powder, absorbed through the skin or ingested.

It only takes minutes to take effect and causes convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure an death.

Read more: Sergei Skripal discharged from hospital

"It must be excruciatingly painful and unbelievably violent," Dr Sella said.

"You have very painful muscle contractions, vision goes pretty quickly and what little you can see is blurred, then you can't breathe."

How is it treated?

The treatment for nerve agents is to administer an antidote immediately, but some of the damage from the chemical and oxygen starvation can be irreparable.

It is not known if there is an antidote available for Novichok.