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Salisbury poisoning: What is Novichok? How does the lethal nerve agent work? Who are the Russian suspects?

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 05/09/2018 Tom Powell, Olivia Tobin

a man and woman posing for a photo: amesburyedit.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited amesburyedit.jpg Police have announced that two men have been charged with carrying out the Salisbury Novichok posionings in a dramatic breakthrough. 

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — believed to be aliases — are accused of the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.

Details about their exact movements have been revealed by police, as it is believed the pair flew to Gatwick two days before their alleged attack.

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Further details about the nerve agenet, Novichok have been disclosed by police as they announce it is one of the rarest chemical warfare agents in the world. 

The CPS has issued European Arrest Warrants for the extradition of the two Russian Nationals in connection with the Novichok poisoning attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March. © Press Association The CPS has issued European Arrest Warrants for the extradition of the two Russian Nationals in connection with the Novichok poisoning attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March. What is Novichok?

Novichok is the name of a series of highly toxic nerve agents, believed to be some of the deadliest ever made.

They were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and its name is Russian for “newcomer”.

Novichok agents are believed to be five to 10 times more lethal than the more commonly known VX and sarin poison gases.

They are designed to be undetectable by any standard chemical security tests.

US chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson said Novichok was made with agrochemicals so that offensive weapons production could more readily be hidden within a legitimate commercial industry.

How does it work?

The chemical “causes a slowing of the heart and restriction of the airways, leading to death by asphyxiation,” said Professor Gary Stephens, a pharmacology expert at the University of Reading.

“One of the main reasons these agents are developed is because their component parts are not on the banned list.”

a woman looking at the camera © Provided by Independent Print Limited Is there an antidote?

Anyone exposed to Novichok must be immediately connected to a life support machine, while their clothes are taken off and their body washed.

Various potentially lifesaving antidotes do exist, including atropine, pralidoxime and diazepam.

However, even if an effective antidote is used, there is still a strong chance of life-changing damage to the body.

a store front at day: amesbury0507a.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited amesbury0507a.jpg What happened in the attack on the Skripals?

Theresa May openly blamed the Russian state for the attack on ex-spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.

She said it was "highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei Skripal".

"We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder civilians on our soil,” she told MPs in the Commons.

Her words triggered an international spat in which both countries expelled the other’s diplomats from its shores, while the US and many of Britain’s other allies followed suit.

a person walking down the street: co1416-2018-cctv6.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited co1416-2018-cctv6.jpg What has Russia said about Novichok?

Russia denies producing or researching nerve agents known as Novichok.

Russia was once believed to possess thousands of tonnes of weaponized Novichok varieties and their precursors, according to a 2014 report by the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-partisan group working to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

Along with the United States, Russia once ran one of the largest chemical weapons programmes in the world. It completed the destruction of a stockpile declared to the OPCW last year. The United States is in the final stages of destroying its own stockpile.

The weaponisation of any chemical is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Moscow is a signatory.


a group of people standing in a parking lot © Provided by Independent Print Limited What have the police said about Novichok?

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, National Lead for Counter Terrorism Policing has said the same type of Novichok was used on both attacks.

The way in which it was transported to the UK, in a bottle and packaging, made it perfect for smuggling.

Mr Basu added: "Despite the meticulous and painstaking searches, and although unlikely, it is impossible to guarantee that there are no other materials present in the Salisbury area.

"Therefore we are repeating the advice from Public Health England that people should not pick up items which do not belong to them."

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