Novichok: What Is It And What Does It Do?

The nerve agents are at the heart of diplomatic fury and the death of a woman.

There has been four attacks involving the Russian nerve agent Novichok since March. The poisonings have occurred in nearly the same area in England and claimed the life of 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess.

Sturgess' partner Charlie Rowley was poisoned in Amesbury at the same time, but managed to regain consciousnesses earlier this week. In March, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in Salisbury. Both managed to survive the attack after treatment in hospital.

Following the attacks on the Skripals, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was quick to point the finger at Russia. May expelled 23 Russian diplomats and said no British ministers or royals would attend the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Western allies followed suit and expelled Russian officials, including Australia expelling two people and the U.S. kicking out a whopping 60 diplomats.

Dawn Sturgess died on Sunday after coming into contact with Novichok. Image: Facebook.

All the while Russia denied -- and still denies-- any involvement in or knowledge of the poisonings.

At the heart of the diplomatic fury and the death of a woman lies the mystery nerve agent Novichok.

Here's what we know about them.

Where Have Novichok Agents Come From?

Novichok agents were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.  The name Novichok translates to 'newcomer' in Russian and these agents are considered fourth-generation chemical weapons.

It wasn't until the 1990s that a chemist called Dr Vil Mirzayanov revealed the existence of the weapons and in 1999 U.S. officials travelled to Uzbekistan to help dismantle one of the former Soviet Union's largest chemical testing facilities.

Russia claims to have no part in the Novichok attacks. Image: Getty Images.

In March this year, Mirzayanov told the ABC that only the Russians could be behind the recent nerve agent attacks. The now 83-year-old said the Russians keep very strict control over their agent stockpile. He also said the weapon is complicated to use and requires local knowledge to be executed properly.

"Novichok was invented and studied and experimented and many tonnes were produced only in Russia," Dr Mirzayanov said.

What Are Novichok Agents And What Do They Do?

Novichok are nerve agents that act by attacking the body's nervous system and can be fatal.

Novichoks exist in various forms. Some are liquids, others are said to exist in solid form meaning that it is possible they could be made into an ultra fine powder.

The symptoms of Novichok are similar to other nerve agents. The first symptoms are constrictions of the pupils, or in a larger doses, convulsions and vomiting.

How Novichok affects the body. Image: AAP.

They take effect quickly, often after 30 seconds to two minutes after exposure. The most common means of contact  is inhalation or ingestion, but they can also be absorbed through the skin.

There are antidotes to help stop the action of the poison but there is no cure that can reverse the affects of the agent completely.

What Has Russia Said?

Russia has denied any involvement in the poisonings, demanding evidence from the U.K. government. Russia even flat out denies any research relating to Novichok had taken place on Russian soil.

The Kremlin called the British government's demands for an explanation a "dirty political game".

Russia responded to the U.K. expelling 23 diplomats by expelling exactly 23 British officials in return.

No idea what you are talking about. Image: Getty Images.
What Are The International Laws About Chemical Weapons?

The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons.

All signatories to the convention agreed to chemically disarm by destroying any stockpiles of chemical weapons and the facilities they are produced in. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon's (OPCW) 192 member states make up about 98 percent of the global population and worldwide chemical industry.

Russia signed onto the convention in 1993 and in October 2017 the OPCW confirmed 39,967 metric tons of chemical weapons in Russia had been destroyed. Russian Novichok agents however, were not declared to the OPCW.

OPCW meeting at The Hague in June 2018.  Image: Getty Images.

Novichok agents aren't actually banned under the convention because there is difficulty classifying them because of their chemical structures. The OPCW requires member states to declare if they have chemical weapons, as well as if they plan to produce a chemical, what is being produced, how much and for what purpose. This process should have occurred when the Novichok used to poison people in Britain was produced.

One other possible issue is the military nature of Novichok. The convention permits the production and the use of toxic chemicals for military and defence reasons.

The use of Novichok is strictly forbidden for warfare.