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What is Novichok? Russian nerve agent that critically wounded former spy among deadliest weapons developed by man

For the second time in four months, two people lie critically ill in England's Salisbury District Hospital after being exposed to a military-grade nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, British police confirmed on Wednesday.

The country's chief counter-terrorism police officer said tests at Britain's defence laboratory confirmed what many residents feared: A man and woman in their 40s had been poisoned with the same toxin that almost killed former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

"We can confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, which has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal," said Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner, London's Metropolitan Police.

However, the police said the second case of poisoning was unlikely to be deliberate, and suspect the victims were not directly targetted, but sickened as a consequence of the previous attack. "The working assumption would be that these are victims of either the consequence of the previous attack, or something else, but not that they were directly targeted," security minister Ben Wallace told the BBC.

What is Novichok?

The controversy has again reignited the debate over the use of the Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. As reported by the BBC, Novichok literally translates to "newcomer" in Russian. They were developed at the height of the Cold War under a Soviet programme code-named 'Foliant'.

 What is Novichok? Russian nerve agent that critically wounded former spy among deadliest weapons developed by man

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was allegedly attacked by the Novichok nerve agent. AP

Dr Vil Mirzayanov, who revealed the existence of Novichok, defected to the US in the 1990s, and revealed that the Soviets used to produce and test small batches of the nerve agent which was designed such that it escaped detection by international inspectors.

One of the Novichok group of chemicals is so toxic that it's five to eight times more potent than the VX nerve agent used in the poisoning of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in North Korea.

One of the reasons why Novichok continues to be developed despite it being significantly deadlier is that the components that make up the nerve agent aren't on the banned list, said a report in Independent. "This means chemicals that are mixed to create Novichok can be easily delivered with no risk to the courier," Gary Stephens, pharmacology expert at the University of Reading, was quoted as saying in the report.

How Novichok works

Once even a drop of Novichok is ingested, it overrides neurotransmitters and shuts down the way a body functions. It forces muscles to contract while attacking the nervous system and important parts of the body, the Independent report said. It added that even if a person comes indirectly in contact with Novichok, his/her heart and diaphragm will stop functioning and either heart failure or suffocation will result in a painful death.

The report added the nerve agent has largely stayed in Russia since it was invented, making Western countries feel confident that Moscow may have lost control of it.

What also makes the nerve agent so dangerous is the lack of available antidotes in the market. As reported by The Sun, a number of antidotes that are said to be live-saving — like atropine, pralidoxime and diazepam — are not guaranteed to aid recovery. And even if administered in the appropriate dosage, there are chances that it may cause permanent damage to the human body, the report said.

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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2018 16:58:38 IST

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