How deadly is novichok and other nerve agents?

Considering that Iwan Kivelidi died after three days of being poisoned with a novichok agent in 1995, that Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived a novichok poisoning in England in 2018, and that Alexei Nawalny has survived the novichok attack he suffered on August 20th this year, and having being told in the past that nerve agents are so deadly that a minute amount is enough to kill everyone for miles around I wonder: are nerve agents, particularly novichok agents, really that deadly? Or were they used in an incompetent way? Perhaps on purpose?

On purpose, as in their enemies, whoever they may be, only wanted them very ill? Or do you mean on purpose, as in they poisoned themselves?

Wiki has a pretty decent write up on the Novichok agent:

On purpose as in: it is novichok, so they know it was the Russians, but not deadly, for whatever reason. Just a scary warning shot? I don’t kow, that is why I ask. Because when they wanted people dead, they ended dead, be it with Polonium 210 (also clearly linkable to Russia) or ricin.

Yes, that is just the page I linked to in my first post. Where it states, among other things:

Russian scientists who developed the nerve agents claim they are the deadliest ever made, with some variants possibly five to eight times more potent than VX, and others up to ten times more potent than soman.

And that does not square with survivors.

  1. Part of novichok’s “charm” is that it is usually undetected until it is much too late to do anything about it, and even if detected in time(a very short time) it is very hard to treat effectively. Survivors are usually very lucky…and nobody knows how many people have actually died from it.
  2. Sometimes assassins screw up.


…Do not take novichok if you are allergic to it.

Users have reported incidences of chronic weakness in his arms, a toxic hepatitis that gave rise to cirrhosis of the liver, epilepsy, spells of severe depression, and an inability to read or concentrate. Stop taking novichok if you start to feel involuntary contractions of the skeletal muscles, cardiac arrest, or suffocation.

Ask the Foreign Intelligence Service if novichok is right for you.

If you have trouble paying for novichok, the SVR can help.

Possibly they were being very careful to not cause collateral damage, so used borderline lethal doses? It’s one thing to be suspected of murdering your former nationals on foreign soil, it’s quite another to also take out bystanders and first responders. That would cause a much larger international incident.

There is a very basic issue with any chemical weapon. Bioactive chemicals are just very, very difficult to administer.

Doctors go through a decade or more of training, carefully administer thoroughly tested bioactive chemicals under very carefully controlled conditions, with real-time monitoring of the ongoing condition of the patient by themselves or by other trained medical professionals, and they still occasionally mess up, and over- or under-dose patients.

People have different metabolisms, different immune responses, and in general different reactions to different chemicals. It’s really, really hard to give someone exactly the right dose in the right way to get the intended result.

I actually doubt the GRU/SVR/whichever Russian agency is really all that concerned with possible collateral damage, but a would-be assassin would want to avoid 1) poisoning themselves, 2) being detected administering the chemical, or 3) allowing the chemical to be detected in time to avoid it or for the victim to receive prompt treatment. It’s just genuinely difficult to pull all of that off under uncontrolled, real-world, field conditions.

Even a microscopic dosage of an agent like novichok is potentially fatal, but not necessarily inevitable. Even a tiny dosage under the right conditions is inevitably fatal. But those “right conditions” are just really hard to achieve in the real world.

Also, it’s pretty difficult to gauge dosages and predict outcomes with agents like novichok, because human trials establishing dose-response curves are somewhat problematic.

Don’t forget that Dawn Sturgess did die in the Salisbury attack, and that Det Sgt Nick Bailey and Charlie Rowley also nearly died, as did the Skripals.

Nerve agents need to get into the body - if you aerosolize it and spread it over a city, the vast majority will die. For a targeted assassination where skin contact was the best option (i.e not just wearing a gas mask and spraying the target in the face) then the absorption is slower, and medical treatment is possible (particularly if the agent is identified rapidly). Compare the attack on the Skripals with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX gas in Malaysia, where the target had the nerve agent shoved in their face. The women who carried out the attack were unaware of what they were doing, and could well have also died.

Polonium may seem more effective, but has to be ingested (no possibility of death via skin contact) and it leaves a trail of radioactive residue easily followed from London to Moscow. Ricin has to be injected, requiring close contact - oral administration is far less toxic, as is skin contact.

Yeah, sure, blame the doctor. :frowning:

Mis-poisoning Navalny would be a hell of a thing to get your license lifted for.

Here are the LCt50 for Sarin, from here:

inhalation vapor death LCt50 70 mg-min/m3

percutaneous liquid death LD50 1700 mg/70 kg man

Considerably more agent is required for skin contact to result in a fatality.

The political effects of using a true WMD on foreign soil to effect an assassination, I think far outweigh the technical considerations for choosing that method. Not surprised a rogue nation like North Korea would use VX in such a manner; extremely surprising that an ostensibly modern nation like Russia would choose to do so.

It takes over 2 g of Sarin to kill 50% of people like me (90 kg) via skin contact? That is more than I expected. Thanks for the link!
I too find it surprising that a nation like Russia thought it sensible and doable to execute political oponents with WMDs abroad, cannot figure out what they were calculating. Worst case: their agents are no longer undere full control of their superiors or there are conflicting chains of command. Something seems very wrong when they try to kill political rivals with WMDs and they don’t even succed.

Russia didn’t try to execute political opponents with WMDs- they tried to execute political opponents with chemical agents that can be used as a WMD component.

This isn’t just sophistical nit-picking. Russian agents didn’t set off nerve gas bombs and expose hundreds of random people. They used small quantities of specifically targeted chemicals. They did, in some cases, cause collateral casualties, but stray bullets can also hit innocent bystanders.

I am NOT trying to defend or excuse Russia’s actions. They are abominable. But, they are also, from the viewpoint of the Russian kleptocracy, rational.

Using nerve agents on opponents, both at home in the case of Navalny and abroad in the case of the Skripals, serves a number of purposes.

Nerve agents are difficult to identify and the evidence is highly technical and effectively impossible for a layperson to evaluate for themselves. This creates at least a minimal level of plausible deniability. The British doctors say a Russian nerve agent, the Russian doctors say allergic reaction, and lots of countries have nerve agents anyway, and so on.

A bullet to the head, or ice pick through the eye, might be a more reliable method of execution, but using a nerve agent is, well, more unnerving (no pun intended). A dissident might at least get some psychological comfort from security theater or the thought that they have a chance to see the threat coming if it’s a gunman. But a nerve agent is silent, invisible, undetectable - you could be exposed anywhere, at any time. You’re never safe.

And that cloud of fear, uncertainty, and doubt is what the Russians are probably really after, anyway. They didn’t need to kill Navalny. They effectively forced him from his own country by his own volition - it was Navalny’s supporters that wanted him flown to another country for treatment. They effectively silenced him for an extended period, and tainted him as having foreign ties. They intimidated other members of his movement. Similarly, the Russians didn’t need to kill the Skripals. They firmly established for any future defectors that nowhere is safe, nowhere is beyond Putin’s reach if you betray him.

The point of using a nerve agent to kill opponents isn’t actually the killing part. It’s to establish the fear of being killed. It’s state terrorism.

I see, thanks for clarifying the difference. I was not primarily claiming that Russia had used WMDs against its oponents, that was sloppy writing, my question was about the survival of the targets of nerve gas poisoning. I think you and si_blakely have given me some insights into some plausible reasons. Thanks for that as well.

A VX attack got Kim Jong Nam. For some reason, scanning those articles, it looks like Đoàn Thị Hương and Siti Aisyah survived the administration part of the attack after running to the ladies bathrooms, and presumably washing up after “splashing liquid” on KJN’s face.

I’ve seen videos of the effects of VX it ain’t pretty, and am glad the US Army destroyed their last stockpiled weapons in '06. I have had the dubious honor of holding a vial of VX on a visit to “a site” in Utah, helping develop detectors to identify various agents.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want VX, Novichok, Sarin, Tabun, Soman, or any other chemical weapon in my proximity, with hostile intent. I ain’t scared of much, but when my environment turns not inhospitable, but toxic, that’s the stuff of my nightmares there.

I’ll take a dose of 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine any day of the week, though. Sometimes several! :coffee:

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Now you had me googling whith the answer in plain sight! :relieved: :tea:

And then I read the comments at the end of this article I just came across

and must say I find it utterly depressing. Particularly those written by a certain frighteningtruth look just mean spirited to me, who still has no clue of what really happened and does not pretend to. But I don’t have to have a clue to recognize a mean person.

I saw that article (not the comments) and thought it was really sad that Nick Bailey had to step away from the force.

Just an aside, The Salisbury Poisonings is a BBC dramatization of the events that poisoned the Skripals, Nick Bailey, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess.

It’s well worth a watch if you can get to see it.