What is Novichok and what does it do to the body?

BBC One’s dramatised account of the Salisbury Poisonings is hitting screens this evening, recounting the Novichok incident which shook the city – and the country at large – two years ago.

The three-part drama tells the story from the point of view of Tracy Daszkiewicz, who was the director of public health in Wiltshire at the time.

A bottle of the deadly nerve agent, Novichok, was found in Salisbury in 2018, claiming the life of Dawn Sturgess and nearly killing Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

So, what is Novichok, why is it so deadly, and how is it transmitted?

What is Novichok and what does it to do your body?
Novichok, known as ‘newcomer’, is a nerve agent with over 100 formulations that was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s.

Nerve agents do damage by disrupting electrical signals from the brain to muscles and the rest of the nervous system.

They block the release of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, meaning the gaps between nerve cells become flooded with acetylcholine, sparking continuous contraction of the muscles.

Exposure to the nerve agent can cause muscle spasms, secretion of fluid into the lunge, organ failure, convulsions and cardiac arrest.

How is Novichok transmitted – can it be passed from person to person?
The nerve agent comes in the form of an ultra-fine, but potent powder, which can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through skin.

It can be placed in food, drink, objects, or even in the air.

Salisbury attack survivor suffered hallucinations and vomiting

However, the substance is most commonly spread through touch, according to Andrea Sella, a synthetic inorganic chemist at University College London.

He told Wired that at room temperature, nerve agents are normally liquids.

‘This stuff stays put, it doesn’t go anywhere,’ he said, adding that it doesn’t easily evaporate and is mostly spread through touch.

‘This is really important because if a visitor to Salisbury or somebody living there walks past whatever this thing is, they’re not going to inhale it, they’re not going to acquire it.’

First look at BBC’s The Salisbury Poisonings

‘For the general public, it’s not really an issue providing they don’t go sticking their fingers in funny places,’ he said.

Detectives believe Sergei and Yulia Skripal first came into contact with Novichok at the front door of their house.

Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley came into contact with the deadly substance through a discarded perfume bottle, 11 miles north of Salisbury, in Amesbury.

Dawn later died in hospital after unknowingly spraying the nerve agent over herself.