A Soviet-era poison called Novichok was used to poison a Russian ex-spy and his daughter last week in England.
Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, who were found stiff and unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England, on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal are critically ill and in intensive care.
Novichok behaves slightly differently than other nerve agents, with some reports that the class of substances is deadlier than similar chemicals like sarin or VX and harder to identify.
Alastair Hay, a professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, said it was possible the Skripals’ food was contaminated or the nerve agent was absorbed through the skin, which could take an hour or longer if the substance was administered using something similar to a nicotine patch.
People attacked with Novichok can potentially be treated with compounds called oxines, but recovery would depend on how quickly doctors are able to pinpoint the right compound, according to Hay.
Novichok agents, dispersed as an ultra-fine powder rather than vapour, belong to the class of inhibitors called “organophosphate acetylcholinesterase”.
They prevent the normal breakdown of a neurotransmitter acetylcholine which, when it builds up, causes muscles to contract involuntarily.
Because the victim’s heart and diaphragm aren’t functioning properly, this leads to respiratory and cardiac arrest.
Those affected usually die from total heart failure or suffocation as copious fluid secretions fill their lungs.
But even if they don’t die, the substance can also cause permanent nerve damage,
An attack with Novichok agents, which are 10 times stronger than VX, is excruciating and has no cure, he added.
He said half a gram is enough to kill a person who weighs 50 kilos (110 pounds).
Someone exposed to it first has their vision go blurry, and if no antidote is applied are then hit with violent convulsions and can no longer breathe.
CCTV footage from a pub caught Sergei Skripal driving his daughter, Yulia, into Salisbury at 1.35pm. He parked his dark red BMW in the Sainsbury’s open-air car park at the Maltings shopping centre at 1.40pm. From there they went to the Mill pub and on to the restaurant Zizzi, arriving there at about 2.20pm and staying until 3.35pm.
Emergency services were called to the bench in the Maltings where the Skripals had fallen ill at 4.15pm.
Inside a van, and rattling towards the airport, Sergei Skripal was in high spirits. It was July 2010. Without explanation Skripal had been taken from a penal colony, where he had spent the previous five and a half years, and transported in handcuffs to Moscow. Now he was about to board a flight to Vienna. His ultimate destination: Britain.
Unlikely though it seemed, Skripal was about to be swapped in classic cold war fashion. On the tarmac at Vienna airport he was to be exchanged for 10 Russian “sleeper agents” caught by the FBI and on their way home to Moscow. Heading in the other direction were three fellow Russians, including Igor Sutyagin. All were accused of working for UK or US intelligence.
In Russia, Skripal had worked for military intelligence and the GRU, the most powerful and secret of Russia’s three spy agencies. He reached the rank of colonel. Now, at least officially, he was a retired local government planning officer.
But Skripal received a pardon in 2010 from Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time; in cold war times this should have made him untouchable. He had betrayed the motherland but admitted his crime (he pleaded guilty and got 13 years). He was swapped as part of a state-to-state deal.
Russia claimed MI6 had paid him $100,000 for the information, which he had been supplying since the 1990s.
Col Skripal was well regarded during his career in Russia’s military intelligence (GRU).
A colleague who worked alongside Col Skripal called him “the life and soul of the party” and added: “All his colleagues respected him. So when he was arrested for spying, it was a real shock.”
He was arrested near his home in 2004 and convicted two years later of “high treason in the form of espionage” by Moscow’s military court. He was stripped of all his titles and awards.
Sergei Skripal, 66, had been living in Salisbury after being released by Russia in 2010
He was alleged by the Russian security service (FSB) to have been recruited in 1995 for the British secret services while serving in the army.
Skripal held the rank of colonel when he retired, due to his inadequate health condition, in 1999. He continued to make trips to Spain, where he had a house near Málaga at his disposal, provided by his handlers.
According to Russian prosecutors, he began working for the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in 1995 and passed on state secrets, such as the identities of Russian intelligence agents. After his retirement, he worked in the Household Department of the Russian foreign ministry, while continuing to work for MI6. He was alleged to have blown the cover of 300 Russian agents.