Today the German government announced that the Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny has been poisoned after all. German doctors found traces of the nerve poison Novichok in his body. But what exactly is that stuff?
Novichok, literally ‘newcomer’ in Russian, is actually a collective name for a certain group of nerve gases. In the 70s and 80s it was developed as a chemical weapon in the then Soviet Union.
What type of novich was found in Navalny’s body is not yet clear. But what all types of novice jokes have in common is that they are very dangerous.
“There are different ways to get it,” explains toxicologist Ruud Busker from TNO. “By inhalation, contact with the skin or by ingestion if it’s in food or drink, for example.” According to his spokesman, Navalny wouldn’t have gotten well after drinking a cup of tea.
Once the poison has entered the body, it’s very aggressive. “The symptoms can be diverse, which depends, among other things, on how it entered. But in most cases, with such substances, the nervous system becomes over-stimulated and eventually paralyzed,” says Busker. Respiration becomes blocked and eventually poisoning can lead to brain damage or death.
According to the doctors in Germany, Navalny is now out of danger. But it will take a long time for him to recover.
Navalny is not the first victim of poisoning with Novichok. The Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were also poisoned in Salisbury, England, in 2018. They barely survived. In nearby Amesbury also a couple was poisoned by the stuff. The woman did not survive.
These poisoning cases also attracted a lot of attention:
After the poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague came into action. Novichok was put on a list of banned substances. “Other nerve gases were already on that list, including mustard gas. By putting the ‘family of Novitsjok substances’ on that list as well, it is easier to take measures”, says Busker
Under strict restrictions, only laboratories are now allowed to have novices for scientific research. Busker: “This is purely for defense and to investigate what the substance does and how to treat victims of the poison TNO makes no announcements about which nerve gases they have in house for scientific research.
Who can make Novichok?
According to Busker, the chance that someone can make his own novelty chef is very small. “These kinds of substances are not easy to make. The structural formula and the method of preparation are not widely known and relatively complicated. Much more complicated than mustard gas, for example.”
Even if someone had the knowledge, it would still be difficult to make it outside a laboratory, according to Busker: “Novichok is very toxic and therefore very dangerous. So if you don’t act very carefully in the right environment, things can go wrong.”