London/Moscow: The nerve agent that poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia is one of the most deadly chemical weapons ever developed and was produced in secret by the former Soviet Union.
Variants of the nerve agent Novichok are reported to be up to eight times more effective than VX nerve gas, which was deployed in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in February 2017.
Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian scientist and one of Novichok’s developers who fled to the US after turning whistleblower, has said one of the strains had no known cure.
Scientists at the defence laboratory at Porton Down, just seven miles from Salisbury, identified the use of Novichok as the weapon used in the attempted murder of Colonel Skripal, 66, a Russian double agent who sold secrets to MI6, and his daughter, 33.
Novichok — meaning “newcomer” or “new guy” — was developed in labs in the old Soviet Union from the Seventies through to the early Nineties. It is so sophisticated only a state would have the capability of manufacturing it — and only Russia has done so.
It explains why Theresa May was able to say with certainty that the attempted assassination of Col Skripal — who remains critically ill and not certain to survive the attack — was either ordered by the Kremlin or else the regime bears responsibility for allowing the chemical weapon to be stolen from its secret laboratory.
Philip Ingram, a former intelligence and security officer who has studied chemical warfare, said: “Novichok is a super, fourth generation chemical weapon that was deliberately designed to avoid standard Nato detection and defence mechanisms.
“It is highly lethal and can only be produced in some of the most sophisticated state run laboratories.”
One chemical weapons expert said last night that Novichok was delivered in powder form and — unlike other nerve agents — its effects are delayed after exposure. This explains why Col Skripal and his daughter collapsed in Salisbury city centre but were exposed to the toxin in the hours beforehand.
Novichok’s existence was only disclosed when a Russian scientist turned whistleblower in 1992 in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Dr Mirzayanov worked on Novichok for 27 years and was arrested for treason. However, the case was dropped because a trial would force the Kremlin to admit it had secretly developed an illegal chemical weapon. He said the Russians had enough Novichok to kill “several hundred thousand people”.
Novichok, explained Dr Mirzayanov, is a “binary” product that created nerve agents out of two “harmless” substances that when mixed together created a powerful toxin. By tweaking the structure of agents, scientists hoped to create poisons that were more deadly to the victim, but safer to those deploying them. The tweaks also meant they would not show up in standard tests for better known chemical weapons.
The Russian labs created two types — A-230 and A-232 and writing in CBRNe World, a magazine for scientists in the nuclear and chemical weapons industry, in 2009 Dr Mirzayanov wrote: “Agent A-230... is five to eight times more poisonous that VX gas. It is impossible to cure people exposed. Agent A-232... is a phosphate like many pesticides. Phosphates are not listed among controlled chemicals on the Chemical Weapons Convention lists.”
Prof Andrea Sella, an inorganic chemistry expert at University College London, said Novichok was designed to be made active before use by mixing two less dangerous chemicals. The two stage process meant it was safer to prepare and deploy, but it also meant it could potentially be transported or smuggled more easily.