Toxicologist explains about nerve agents

Now it is clear: Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been poisoned. But who is behind it? And will he get better? The toxicologist Martin Göttlicher explains in an interview with Chillreport.

Russian government critic Alexej Navalny was intentionally poisoned – and not with just any poison: the chemical nerve agent “Novitschok”, which experts could detect in Navalny’s body, is a neurotoxin developed by the Soviet Union. It’s the same stuff that poisoned Russian ex-cop Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Martin Göttlicher is best known with chemical nerve agents. He heads the Institute for Toxicology at the Helmholtz Center in Munich. In an interview, he explains what triggers “Novitschok” in a body, what long-term consequences Navalny could potentially suffer permanently – and why the perpetrators would have chosen this poison.

Chillreport: Experts from the Berlin Charité managed to unambiguously detect the chemical nerve agent “Novitschok” in Alexej Navalny’s body. How hard is it

Martin Göttlicher: It’s very difficult, but it is possible. “Novitschok” inhibits an important enzyme: cholinesterase. This enzyme can be isolated from the body and a highly sensitive mass spectrometer can be used to detect if there are any residues of the active ingredient on it. It’s a very common and precise method – and it may have been successful now.

Navalny has been in an artificial coma since the attack and needs to be ventilated. Could he make a full recovery from this? Or can it preserve long-term damage?

Both are possible. Actually, acetylcholine, the messenger substance in the nervous system that can no longer be broken down, can be treated well with antidotes. But there is concern that long-term damage will persist – for example, muscle weakness or a memory impairment. And with such harsh treatments, there is always the possibility that complications will arise. Everything is currently open. After about three weeks, it should be clear how things will turn out for Mr. Navalny. However, it can take a long time to fully recover from such poisoning: half a year or even a whole year.

Martin Göttlicher. The expert heads the Institute for Toxicology at the Helmholtz Center in Munich. (Source: Institute for Toxicology and Environmental Hygiene)

Novitschok is a Soviet nerve agent. Who has access to such a substance and who can manufacture it?

One can only speculate. The basic chemistry of these substances is known. To make “Novitschok” you need a good pharmacy, very good instruments, but not a high security grand piano. But above all, you need someone who is willing to put a lot of energy into production. It does not necessarily have to be a state. But it takes a certain amount of logistics – and it would be very difficult to let that go unnoticed in the long run.

How is such a poison administered? And how long does it take to work?

War drugs such as “Novitschok” have been developed in such a way that they can enter the body very easily: for example through the skin, through the air or through the gastrointestinal tract. They have been optimized so that the poisoning cannot be treated as easily as possible. In Navalny’s case, this means he got the poison shortly before collapsing: a few hours, maybe even minutes before that.

So far it looks like Alexei Navalny will survive the attack. Sergej Skripal and his daughter have also recovered. Is such a poison difficult to dose – or was it not even intended to kill her?

“Novichok” is not an ideal poison to kill someone. Above all, such an attack is a huge threat. “Novichok” is less lethal than other substances, but it is easy to use. You may have chosen a relatively simple method – with an uncertain outcome.

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