Everything You Need To Know About Novichok

Everything You Need To Know About Novichok

By Carlos Coelho and Kristyna Foltynova
November 23, 2020

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, scientists who claim to have worked on its chemical weapons program spoke publicly about a nerve agent they had named Novichok -- Russian for "new guy" or "newcomer."

Russia has never officially confirmed its existence, but those same scientists said Novichok nerve agents are the deadliest ever made, with some variants possibly five to eight times more potent than VX.

Toxicity Of Various Nerve Agents
Expressed as milligram-minute per cubic meter (mg-min/m³)

Novichok is a nerve agent developed at the GosNIIOKHT state chemical-research institute in Russia. It belongs to a broad class of compounds called cholinesterase inhibitors, which are used in a wide range of medicines and poisons.

There are several variants of Novichok, some of which are believed to have been adapted for military use and were specifically designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

How It Works

Novichok disrupts the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to organs, by inhibiting chemicals in the body that nerve cells use to regulate essential functions and blocking neurotransmitters.

Healthy System

System Attacked By A Nerve Agent

Nerve agents are usually colorless and tasteless liquids that may evaporate to a gas. Though some Novichok agents are solid, it is thought that its most common dispersal is by means of an ultrafine powder.

Novichok can enter the body by inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin.

How Novichok Enters The Body


For those lucky enough to survive, Novichok can cause lasting nerve damage, as well as permanent damage to the muscles and organs.

Signs And Symptoms Of A Nerve Agent

Why Is It So Difficult
To Detect?

Specialists in the matter claim Novichok agents were designed to achieve four objectives:

Novichok is a "binary" chemical weapon, meaning it uses two or more chemical precursors that are either nontoxic or less toxic and become active only when mixed.

Though this makes Novichok safer to store, transport, and dispose of, it makes it harder to detect, as the precursors can be transported separately.

Another disadvantage is that careless preparation may produce a nonoptimal agent. This is perhaps why some presumed assassination attempts using Novichok have failed.

Binary Weapon

Handling And Treatment

If you suspect you have been exposed to a nerve agent, you should remove all clothing immediately and wash using abundant amounts of soap and water. Then seek immediate emergency medical attention.

Nerve-agent poisoning can be treated with atropine and oxime. Even if the treatment is successful, victims can suffer lasting damage.

Novichok Poisonings
And Possible Cases

1995: Ivan Kivelidi and Zara Ismailova

The first use of Novichok may have been in 1995, when Russian businessman Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary, Zara Ismailova, were killed in Moscow. A poisonous substance had been placed on Kivelidi’s telephone receiver in his office.

Authorities said at the time that they had been poisoned with cadmium, a heavy metal, but Russian and foreign media have since reported that it was almost certainly Novichok.

2015: Emilian Gebrev

Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev was hospitalized in April 2015 after collapsing at a reception he was hosting in Sofia. His son and one of his company’s executives also fell ill and were hospitalized.

At the time, doctors said Gebrev had been poisoned but were unable to identify the substance used.

Reports of a possible Novichok link surfaced after the investigative site Bellingcat claimed it had discovered that a suspect in the Skripal poisoning had been in Bulgaria at the time Gebrev fell ill.

2018: Sergei and Yulia Skripal

On March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, England, with a Novichok nerve agent.

Sergei Skripal had been convicted in 2006 by a Russian court for "high treason in the form of espionage" on charges that he had given the names of Russian agents in Europe to Britain's MI6 during the 1990s. The West believes Skripal was likely the target of a state-ordered execution.

Then-British Prime Minister Theresa May said in Parliament, "Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."

The British government accused Russia of attempted murder and announced punitive measures that included the expulsion of diplomats on March 12, 2018.

2018: Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess

On June 30, 2018, Charlie Rowley found a perfume bottle in a trash can somewhere in Salisbury and gave it to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, who sprayed its contents on her wrist. She fell ill within 15 minutes and died a few days later. Rowley, who also came into contact with the poison, survived. Rowley is reported to still be suffering from serious health problems.

Police later said the pair had been poisoned with the same nerve agent as the Skripals.

2020: Aleksei Navalny

On August 20, 2020, Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny fell violently ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. After an emergency landing, he was taken to a hospital in Omsk, where he was placed in an induced coma. He was evacuated to the Charité hospital in Berlin two days later.

On September 2, 2020, the German government said that it had "unequivocal evidence" that Navalny had been poisoned by a Novichok agent.

Navalny was discharged from the hospital on September 22, 2020. He is undergoing physical rehabilitation and says he plans to return to Russia.