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What is novichok, that lethal weapon used against Russian dissidents like Navalni?
Emergency services personnel in protective suits investigate where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with novichok. Salisbury, UK, April 24, 2018. Shutterstock / Simon Ward PhotographyNovichok (“newcomer” or “rookie” in Russian) is the name given to the fourth generation of chemical weapons supposedly developed in the extinct Soviet Union between the 1970s and 1990s. The arrest this weekend, after landing in Moscow, of the dissident Alexei Navalni, allegedly poisoned by novichok, has brought back a substance that was designed not to be detected by the tools available by NATO forces. Novichok are capable of penetrating the enemy’s body regardless of the protection measures in place at the time, they are safe to transport and store, and their effects lack treatment. Furthermore, they were not included in the Convention of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). All of this makes them especially attractive for both terrorist and chemical warfare purposes, and they are rated by some experts as the most deadly group of nerve agents ever developed. The lethal Soviet contribution to neurotoxic chemical agents In the book “Secrets of State: an internal chronicle of the Russian program of chemical weapons”, the dissident and ex-Russian scientist exiled in the United States, Vil S. Mirzayanov, denounced the Soviet Union for having developed, under a secret program, the group of novichok agents, between 1970 and 1990. Mirzayanov, who worked as an analytical chemist for 26 years at the Moscow State Institute for Scientific Research for Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT, ГосНИИОХТ in Cyrillic ), claimed to have witnessed how, between 1971 and 1973, the scientist Petr Kirpichev and his assistants, through the project “FOLIANT Program”, ordered by the Soviet Ministry of Defense, developed a new series of neurotoxic agents derived from the agents of the series G and series V, which was called series A. According to their testimony, the first compound of this series synthesized and tested was a derivative of sarin, where the grup o O-isopropyl was replaced by the acetoamidine radical, receiving the code name A-230 (Figure 1), and it was 5 to 8 times more toxic than the Russian VX agent (VX-R). Later, Kirpichev’s group synthesized and tested the derivatives A-232 and A-234 (methoxy and ethoxy analogues of A-230, respectively) of similar toxicity to the VX-R agent, but more volatile, and the A-242 and A -262 (guanidine analogs of A-230 and A-232, respectively), probably the first solid neurotoxic agents synthesized (Figure 1). Deadly uncontrolled substances Novichoks are similar to most of the organophosphate (OP) agents used in agriculture as pesticides and herbicides. In this context, OPs are not included in the OPCW lists because all known OPs used as chemical weapons are phosphonates, but since A-232 and A-234 are not phosphonates, they were ideal for misleading inspectors. and bypassing the list of chemical agents controlled by the OPCW, causing them to remain unknown to the scientific community, and to prevent progress in their prevention and treatment. Its recent use in the United Kingdom represents a great opportunity to warn the scientific community about its risks and to urge the development of new antidotes, as well as ways of detection, protection and neutralization. The OPCW has carried out the destruction of 97% of the known chemical weapons stockpiles in the world, thus obtaining the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. Despite all the eradication efforts made, the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s side against its own people, and Russia’s support for the Syrian government, have put the treaty under heavy pressure in recent years. Recent episodes involving nerve agents have shown that these types of chemical weapons are still far from being controlled. Examples include the use of sarin in the Syrian civil war, and the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, with VX at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Decontamination teams are working in the area where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found poisoned and unconscious. Salisbury, UK, April 25, 2018. Shutterstock / Amani A The Skripal case On March 4, 2018, a novichok nerve agent was allegedly used in an attempt to assassinate former Russian Central Intelligence Department officer Sergey Skripal, and their 33-year-old daughter Yulia, near a Salisbury shopping center in the UK. Later, while in a coma, they were rushed to the local hospital with the suspicion of having been poisoned by a nerve agent. On March 12, 2018, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May declared in parliament: “Either it was direct action by the Russian state against our country or the Russian government lost control over the potentially catastrophic and destructive substance and allowed it to fall into the hands of others ”. An investigation into the poisonings by the UK government found that Russian authorities had dispatched two hitmen to carry out the attack, in retaliation for Skripal’s work as a double agent for MI6. The UK and other countries expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the incident, but Russia has denied any involvement in it. According to the OPCW, the chemical used in this event was a novichok, considered the fourth generation of chemical weapons. Alexey Navalni. Shutterstock / vasilis asvestas The attack on the Russian dissident Navalni The OPCW, which has the task of watching over and enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention, announced the decision to explicitly ban novichoks on November 27, 2019. However, on November 20 August 2020, Russian opponent and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalni became seriously ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, and was transferred to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing, where he fell into a coma. Two days later he was evacuated to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Five OPCW-certified laboratories found a cholinesterase enzyme inhibitor from the novichok group in samples of blood, urine, skin and in the water bottle from which Navalni had drunk. At the same time, the OPCW report clarified that Navalni was poisoned with a new type of novichok that was not included on the OPCW’s list of controlled chemicals. There is currently no information available on protection and decontamination against agents of series A. It is believed that, based on their structural similarities with other nerve agents, they can be destroyed by basic solutions with more than 10% by weight of NaOH or NaCO3 , or undiluted household bleach. It is also speculated that reactive oximes, such as potassium 2,3-butanedione monoximate and basic peroxides, should rapidly detoxify these compounds. It has been reported that the A series compounds should act in the same way as the G and V series nerve agents, inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and triggering a cholinergic syndrome. Therefore, preferential prophylaxis would involve the administration of a cocktail containing an anticholinergic, to reduce the concentration of acetylcholine, an anticonvulsant, to combat the effects of cholinergic syndrome, and an antidote (generally an oxime), to reactivate AChE. Novichoks are a source of great concern today in the field of chemical weapons. There are many uncertainties that still need to be clarified. An urgent, complete and undoubted elucidation of their chemical structures and properties is essential to better understand the real risks posed by these compounds and for the development of effective protection, which will allow the discovery of the most suitable antidotes and the development of biological protocols. and analytics to identify misuse.This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original. The signatories are not salaried, or consultants, nor do they own shares, nor do they receive funding from any company or organization that can benefit from this article, and they have declared that they lack relevant links beyond the academic position mentioned above.