Novichok: a murderous nerve agent attack in the UK. Vale JA et al. Clin Toxicol 2018 May 14 [Epub ahead of print]
In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, medical workers who treated Sergei and Yulia Skripal after they were found poisoned and unconscious on March 4 describe how they feared both patients would die and that many more patients might ultimately be affected.
Initially it was thought that the Skripals were suffering from opioid overdose. But after learning that Mr. Skripal had been a spy for Russia, attention turned to some form of organophosphate nerve agent.
British authorities have identified the agent use to poison the Skripals as “Novichok.” This term, which means ‘newbie’ or ‘newcomer’ in Russian, is not all that helpful. It refers to a number of nerve agents that were synthesized after the development of the ‘G’ agents — tabun, soman, sarin — and other agents such as VX. Virtually nothing has been published in the scientific literature about the toxicology of the Novichok agents.
I was hoping that this paper would fill in some of the gaps and expand our knowledge about these “fourth generation” nerve agents. Unfortunately, It does not reveal much that is new or not known from previously available sources. The authors remind us that “more than 100 compounds fall into the Novichok category.” Many of these may be binary agents, meaning that they are formed when two different chemicals — each relatively harmless on its own — are mixed. Some of these may be up to 8 times more toxic than VX. Aside from these tidbits, the article basically reviews organophosphate nerve agents in general. The paper does not contain any lessons learned specifically from the Skripals’ poisoning. Hopefully, that information will follow.