Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink