How to kill a spy: what is Novichok, the nerve agent with which they poisoned the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal

On Sunday March 4, a 70-year-old man and a 30-year-old girl were found on a bench in the Maltings shopping center in the English city of Salisbury. It was unclear what had happened, the circumstances were strange. One thing quickly transpired: the man was named Sergei Skripal and he was a former Russian spy.

All alarms went off. Twelve years have passed since the polonium poisoning 210 of Alexander Litvinenko, another former Russian spy. No one was very clear about what was happening, but what did seem clear is that spy novels did not end with the Cold War.

"Newcomers" to the world of nerve agents

Ousa Chea

After a complex investigation, Theresa May announced yesterday that they already had the culprit: a Novichok nerve agent, one of the most powerful and deadly biological weapons in the world. One that, as far as we know, is only in the hands of Russia.

The Novichoks ('Newcomers' in the Tolstoy language) were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and have been a great mystery ever since. What little we know is due to the fact that in 1991 the Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov produced a report that exposed the program and explained its general operation. In essence, they function like other generations of nerve agents; that is to say, acting on acetylcholinesterase and, thanks to this, "disconnecting" the nervous system from the muscle.

Novichok-5 and 7 (the two most powerful agents in the N series) are compounds slightly related to the so-called G series (the family of sarin gas) and the V series (that of the VX). That is, we know that they have carbon and phosphorous in their structure, but the details are unknown. It is one of the best kept secrets of the Russian armed forces.

In fact, Vil Mirzayanov was arrested on October 22, 1992 and sent to prison for divulging state secrets. And it is not for less: although until now, there was no evidence that these compounds had been used in a chemical attack or killed, it is calculated that only 10 milligrams of one of those agents is fatal.

The question now is why use an agent that directly incriminates them even though they have denied any participation. But everything seems to indicate that it is a show of force within what some already call the "new cold war".

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