Nerve Agent Novichok

Context: The Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok is back in the news. This time it is reported to been used to poison Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

Analysis

  • Novichok nerve agents – also known as the “N-series” – were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s.
  • Some Novichoks can be eight times as deadly as the US equivalent known as VX, the V-series agent that was used to kill North Korean exile Kim Jong-nam.

How do nerve agents work?

  • Novichoks work in the same way as other nerve agents, which disrupt nerve signals to the muscles by inhibiting an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase.
  • The gaps between nerve cells become flooded with acetylcholine, causing continuous contraction of the muscles.
  • Symptoms include convulsions (a sudden, violent, irregular movement of the body, caused by involuntary contraction of muscles) and difficulty breathing.
  • Like other binary nerve gases, Novichok too is absorbed through the lungs or skin and interferes with the nervous system, leading to paralysis.
  • In November 2019, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) added Novichok to its list of banned toxins, in one of the first major changes to the treaty since it was signed in the 1990s.

Threat to the Gas pipeline

  • Germany is facing growing pressure to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.
  • Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. It is more than 90% finished and due to operate from 2021

Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea

  • Recently, U.S. put sanctions against companies building a Russian natural gas pipeline to Germany that U.S. fears will give the Kremlin dangerous leverage over European allies.
  • The sanctions are opposed by the European Union (EU).
  • They target companies building the nearly $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea with the aim of doubling deliveries of Russian natural gas to Germany.
  • This pipeline was also delayed due to opposition from Denmark’s environmental activists and could not be completed before the U.S. sanctions kicked in.

Baltic Sea

  • The Baltic Sea is an arm of the North Atlantic Ocean and separates the Scandinavian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe.
  • The largest expanse of brackish water in the world, the semi-enclosed and relatively shallow Baltic Sea is of great interest to scientists.
  • Although the great influx of river water and surface runoff, including spring snowmelt, causes an outflow of surface water into the North Sea, a deeper countercurrent of denser saltwater flows into the Baltic.
  • The nine countries bounding the Baltic are Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. 
  • The Vistula and the Oder are among the major rivers which drain their water into the Baltic Sea.

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