The Salisbury Poisonings: What is Novichok nerve agent – and what does it do to you?

Everything you need to know about the dangerous biological weapon used on British soil in 2018

Wayne Swann plays Sergei Skripal in The Salisbury Poisonings

New BBC drama The Salisbury Poisonings tells the extraordinary true story of the 2018 nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, as we see how the authorities swung into action to protect the public from this deadly threat.

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But what exactly is “Novichok”, the nerve agent (or rather, category of nerve agents) used in the poisonings? Here’s what you need to know…

What is a Novichok nerve agent?

Often translated from the Russian “Новичо́к” as “newcomer” or “new boy”, Novichok is a series of chemical weapons reportedly developed by the Soviet Union and then (once the USSR collapsed) by Russia between 1971 and 1993.

There are several variants of Novichok, five of which are believed to have been adapted for military use. According to Soviet chemist and defector Dr Vil Mirzayanov, Novichok agents were specifically designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

Novichok nerve agents are considered some of the deadliest ever made. They can be delivered in various forms (including a clear, odourless liquid),  and just a tiny quantity can kill tens of thousands. But because few have been able to study these nerve agents, there are lots of unknowns about the substance; there’s still a scientifically debate about whether it takes months or decades to decompose.

In 2018, it was determined that a Novichok agent had been used to poison former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. A further three people – DS Nick Bailey, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley – were also poisoned and became critically ill, with Sturgess dying in hospital.

What are the symptoms and effects of Novichok poisoning?

Nick Bailey in The Salisbury Poisonings

These chemical weapons can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. One of the first signs you’ve been affected is “miosis”, where the pupils in your eyes shrink to tiny pinpricks.

Novichok agents disrupt nerve signals to the muscles, leading to continuous convulsions, difficulty breathing, sweating and wheezing. This is accompanied by vomiting.

The nerve agent causes muscles to contract involuntarily, including around the heart and lungs. That can cause respiratory and cardiac arrest, which can lead to suffocation and heart failure and death.

On a technical level, Novichok agents inhibit the enzyme acetycholinesterase and prevent the normal breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. According to the New Scientist, “The gaps between nerve cells become flooded with acetylcholine, causing continuous contraction of the muscles.”

For those who survive, Novichok can cause lasting nerve damage, as well as permanent damage to the muscles and organs. Long-term recovery can be slow.

The Salisbury Poisonings aired on 14th-16th June at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide

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The Salisbury Poisonings arrives on AMC’s new subscription service AMC+ on Thursday 1 October 2020.