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June 15, 2020

Salisbury poisonings: What is Novichok?

In March 2018, the nerve agent Novichok was used in the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in UK city Salisbury. Exposure to the weapon resulted in the hospitalisation of the Skripals and police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, and the death of Dawn Sturgess.

By Harry Lye

Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation during the late 20th century but was never used in warfare. Shortly after the poisoning of the Skripals, the UK Government confirmed that Novichok had been identified as the chemical weapon used in the attack.

Leftover poison from the attempted assassination resulted in the death of Dawn Sturgess after she was given a perfume bottle believed to have been used to store the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals. Sturgess’s partner Charlie Rowley was also hospitalised due to his own exposure to the weapon.

Novichok – meaning ‘newcomer’ – does not refer to a single chemical weapon, but rather a family of nerve agents; the exact one used to poison the Skripals is still unknown. The weapon is also the only nerve agent to have been used in Europe.

It is believed the amount of Novichok used in the Salisbury poisonings was enough to have potentially killed up to 1,000 people had it not been contained. Contaminated areas had to be deep-cleaned and decontaminated, whilst potentially contaminated vehicles including police cars and ambulances were destroyed to prevent inadvertent poisoning from traces of the weapon.

After an investigation, police said it was likely that the Skripals were poisoned at home, with a high concentration of the nerve agent being found on Sergei Skripal’s front door handle.

Speaking in the House of Commons after the poisoning, then Prime Minister Theresa May said: “It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.

“This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.

“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”

Novichok is a form of Organophosphate, exposure to it can result in muscle spasms, as well as cardiac arrest and respiratory problems.

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