What you need to know about nerve agent, the deadly chemical used in ex-spy Sergei Skripal's attempted murder in Britain

  • Former Russian double spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were exposed to nerve agent before they collapsed in Salisbury.
  • Police have classified this as attempted murder.
  • Nerve agents are highly toxic chemicals that can kill people in minutes, and are extremely hard to make.
  • Experts differ over whether this means Russia did it.


Sergei Skripal, the former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia are fighting for their lives in a Salisbury hospital after being exposed to nerve agent.

While officials did not specify the type of nerve agent used, a well-placed source told the BBC it was likely to be extremely rare.

Nerve agents are extremely toxic chemicals that effectively shut down communication between the brain and muscles — in other words, stop the body from working. They are also very hard to make.

Here's what you need to know about the deadly substances.

What are nerve agents?

Nerve agents can take the form of gas, aerosol, or liquid, and enter the body through inhalation, the skin, or the consumption of liquid or food contaminated with them, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said.

Symptoms include restlessness, loss of consciousness, wheezing, and a running nose, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Depending on the amount and method of administration, symptoms can take minutes or hours to occur, Sky News science correspondent Thomas Moore said. When administered in high doses, nerve agents can suffocate victims to death within a couple of minutes, the OPCW said.

It's not clear when the Skripals were exposed to the chemicals and how much was administered to them.

A witness at Zizzi, the restaurant where the Skripals were eating before they collapsed, told the BBC that the elder Skripal "seemed to lose his temper" and "just started screaming at the top of his voice, he wanted his bill and he wanted to go."

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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
Chairs are seen on tables inside the Mill pub which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia visited before they were found poisoned on a bench nearby in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Witness Freya Church, 27, walks with a policeman near a forensic tent where Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s, were found unconscious in Salisbury town centre two days previously on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010 and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A forensics tent covers the bench, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped, in a cordoned off area in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers stand on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley leaves after giving a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: A police tent is seen behind a cordon outside The Maltings shopping centre where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench on March 4 and taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands at a cordon around the bench where former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accompanied by Temporary Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, visits the scene where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after having been poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, Britain, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A police officer stands on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers work at a supermarket near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
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Another witness, who saw the stricken Skripals later on, said Yulia "looked like she had passed out" and Sergei "was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky."

What was used on the Skripals?

The type of nerve agent used on the Skripals remains unclear. Investigators have identified it but are not making it public at this point, the BBC reported.

A source close to the investigation told the BBC the nerve agent was likely rarer than sarin gas, which is believed to have been used in the Syrian war and used to kill 13 people in a Tokyo subway in 1995.

The source also said the substance used was not VX, which was used to assassinate the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.

The Sun previously reported military scientists on the case as saying the pair might have been poisoned with a "hybrid" kind of thallium, a hard-to-trace heavy metal commonly found in rat poison and insecticides. Detectives originally thought former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with thallium in London in 2006.

How easy is it to make nerve agents?

The raw materials for nerve agents are relatively inexpensive and easy to procure, the OPCW said. However, the chemical weapon itself is difficult to make.

Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft who testified to Parliament about Russian covert interference in Britain, told Business Insider: "Nerve agents are rare, tightly-controlled synthetic substances that do require specialized knowledge to manufacture, store and use safely.

"However, that knowledge isn't beyond someone with a good Master's degree in Organic Chemistry, say, and access to a good laboratory. Very difficult, but not impossible."

Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie similarly told The Guardian that manufacturing nerve agents require "fairly complicated chemistry," and were "essentially impossible" to make at home.

"Nerve agents, such as sarin or VX, require some fairly complicated chemistry using certain highly reactive chemicals," Guthrie said. "Small quantities could be made in a well-equipped laboratory with an experienced analytical chemist. To carry out the reactions in a domestic kitchen would be essentially impossible."

Does this point to Russia?

Experts appear to differ over whether Russia was responsible.

Matt Tait, a former GCHQ officer, said the method of attack seemed "designed to project that this is a nation-state that’s doing it."

He told The Atlantic: "This is a very extreme form of killing in a way that is designed to project that this is a nation-state that's doing it. Nobody can be under any sort of illusions that this is some sort of run-of-the-mill killing. [...]

"The clear message that they're sending to both people who currently work for their intelligence agencies and also people who used to work for their intelligence agencies … they will make an example of you."

Madeira disagreed. Just because nerve agents are rare doesn't necessarily mean a state actor did it, he said.

"Simply using a 'very rare' nerve agent against Col. Skripal wouldn't necessarily indicate Kremlin (or Russian) involvement," he told BI. "This is why DSTL Porton Down [the UK Ministry of Defence's science lab] and partner agencies are racing to 'fingerprint' the agent used, which will then allow them to narrow the list of potential sources right down."

Rob Wainwright, executive director of Europol, told CNN that attacking an ex-spy with nerve agent in Britain was an "outrageous affront to our security in Europe and our way of life." He warned, however, that people should "exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions."

The Kremlin has vehemently denied any involvement or knowledge of the case.

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