It’s paralyzing. It can be lethal. And only a state actor is capable of producing it. This much we know about the class of nerve agents known as Novichok, a type of which British authorities say was used earlier this month to poison a former Russian spy, his daughter, and a British police officer in the English city of Salisbury. But that leaves room for substantial mystery. Who developed it? How did it end up in Salisbury? And how precisely did it get into the nervous systems of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey?
While the British and others investigate these questions, Russian scientists who say they observed the development of the substance itself before the 1990s have been offering answers about the history of the nerve agent and how it works. One of them is Vil Mirzayanov, a former chemist and head of the Soviet-era technical counterintelligence department, who said his job involved concealing the existence Novichok from foreign intelligence services. “I was working to protect these weapons,” he told The Atlantic.
But then something changed. It was Mirzayanov himself who first revealed the existence of the substance publicly in the 1992, as Russia was preparing to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans substances like it. He says he saw the weapon as representing a direct violation of Russia’s international commitments. He and another scientist, Lev Fyodorov, went public in an article for the Russian newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti and in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. At the time, the Sun reported that according to Mirzayanov, “the nerve gas is 10 times more effective at killing people than the U.S. equivalent, known as VX.” But his story was greeted with doubt. An American scientist the paper interviewed said it was “spurious” and “hard to imagine” a nerve agent that powerful, given the known state of the science at the time. Mirzayanov was fired, arrested, and charged for divulging state secrets, though these charges were eventually dropped.