Russian spies in a park near you?

By Kate Bongiovanni, Class of 2020.


Image via Pikist.

It’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re walking through your local park soaking up the warmth of the sun, listening to the breeze rustle through the trees, watching swans drift lazily through the pond.  You can hear birds chirping, a couple chatting on a park bench and children frolicking in the playground.  Then the calm scene shifts, and chaos erupts. 

The man and woman sitting on the park bench keel over, foaming at the mouth.  Sirens wail as ambulances arrive.  Curious and confused park-goers turn towards the source of commotion and a small crowd soon surrounds the convulsing couple now on the ground and struggling to breathe.  The sounds of alarm get louder as more sirens join the chorus and police rush to the scene.  The police push the crowds back, paramedics load the sick couple into ambulances and speed off and then the police corner off the scene.  

This is what happened one sunny afternoon in a park in Salisbury, England just over two years ago.  The man, Sergei Skripal, was an ex-Russian spy turned double-agent for the UK government, and the woman was his daughter, Yuliya. They were both poisoned by a lethal Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok

What is Novichok?

Novichok nerve agents are highly toxic chemicals designed to kill.  Novichok toxins disrupt communication between the brain, nerves and muscles leading to seizures, muscle paralysis and heart failure. A mere gram of Novichok contains 5000 lethal doses and it can take as little as three hours for the toxin to be absorbed into your skin.  

How does Novichok contaminate people?

People can become contaminated by touch or by eating or breathing in the toxins.  Scientists believe Novichok entered the Skripals’ bodies after they touched their front door handle which had been sprayed with the toxin. A police officer was also contaminated by Novichok from the Skripals’ door handle (despite wearing protective gear), while another man and a woman were contaminated by spraying Novichok disguised in a perfume bottle onto their skin.  Last month Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell violently ill after drinking tea laced with Novichok.  

The scary thing is that Novichok was designed to be undetectable and to defeat chemical protective gear, making it extremely difficult to trace and clean up.  

How does Novichok spread?

According to Professor Andrea Sella, inorganic chemistry expert at University College London, Novichok nerve agents “don’t evaporate, they don’t break up in water”.  This means washing a contaminated area, such as the Salisbury park bench, with water won’t destroy the toxin, but could actually help it spread by allowing it to enter the water supply.  

Salisbury police and public health authorities pooled their best resources to stop the Novichok spreading, similar to government efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus. 

Scientists and forensic medical officers investigating Novichok poisoning need to get changed into protective gear, similar to that worn by doctors treating coronavirus patients. Image from Javed Anees, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Stopping the spread, prevention and cures

Chemicals can be used to decontaminate Novichok, so if you’ve been exposed to a low dose it can help to wash your clothes, and wash your hands with soap and water.  

There are treatments that can help keep the body’s systems working while your body fights to recover, but there are no antidotes.  

While there are key differences between Novichok poisoning and coronavirus, there are some parallels and lessons to be learned.  The health chief during the Salisbury poisonings,Tracy Daszkiewicz, explained how the planning and protocols put in place at that time helped the region’s initial response to coronavirus



For a more detailed story of the Salisbury Poisonings see the SBS dramatised documentary:

Other sources of interest: 


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