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Why the Russian chemical weapon used to poison an ex-spy isn’t banned

The toxin likely used in a recent nerve attack was built during the Soviet era.

The nerve agent used in the recent poisoning of a Russian ex-spy is believed to be part of the Novichok family of chemicals, a group of toxins in a gray area of international law. The Soviet-era toxin is nearly eight times more lethal than VX, making it one of the world’s deadliest nerve agents. Much of what's known about Novichok is based on accounts from Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian scientist and whistleblower who said he helped develop the military-grade agent in the 1990s. The Novichok program, however, has never been officially recognized by Russia. (Watch VICE News' full interview with Mirzayanov here.)


Production of Novichok can go largely undetected because none of its compound ingredients are included on an internationally regulated list of chemicals outlined in the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC), a global arms treaty. “The so-called Novichok agents were deliberately made through a chemical production path that does not use internationally controlled chemicals,” said John Gilbert, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Russian officials have both denied responsibility for the attacks and for any role in developing the Novichok nerve agent. But Britain's foreign secretary Boris Johnson said last week that it's "overwhelmingly likely" that Russia's President Vladimir Putin approved the attack, and the U.K. already sanctioned the Kremlin after it failed to explain how the chemical ended up on British soil.

READ: What happens when Russia ignores the U.K.'s ultimatum over nerve agent attack