Novichok agents: Further amending the chemical weapons convention schedules and the Australia group precursors list after the Navalny incident

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Abstract

Novichok agents, a class of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, have recently received a great deal of public attention for their use in the attempted assassinations of Sergey Skripal in 2018 and Alexei Navalny in 2020. These agents consist of four families of chemicals: fluorophosphonates and fluorophosphates with amidine or guanidine branches. They structurally differ from canonical nerve agents in several ways. As such, they were not originally included in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) schedules. In fact, Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist formerly involved in the Soviet chemical weapons program, suggests that a motive for the development of Novichoks was to skirt the obligations of the CWC, which was being negotiated at the time.
The Skripal incident triggered an amendment of the CWC schedules, which resulted in the addition to Schedule 1 of families of fluorophosphonates and fluorophosphates with amidine branches, and a single fluorophosphonate with a guanidine branch. It also prompted the addition of a number of phosphates and amidines to the list of chemical weapons precursors compiled by the Australia Group (AG), an international forum of 42 countries intended to harmonize export controls for dual-use goods to stem chemical and biological weapons proliferation.
Through this presentation, we analyze the recent amendments of CWC Schedule 1 and AG list and propose revisions that would ensure comprehensive coverage of Novichok agents. The main weakness of the CWC amendment was its narrow coverage of Novichoks with guanidine branches. Based on the OPCW report of the analyses of Mr. Navalny’s biological samples, he was poisoned with a Novichok agent not covered by the CWC schedules, which is likely A-262 or another phosphate with a guanidine branch.
We recommend further amending CWC Schedule 1, by adding two families of fluorophosphonates and fluorophosphates with guanidine branches that mirror the listed families of fluorophosphonates and fluorophosphates with amidine branches. We also propose a wide coverage of Novichok precursors by converting the individual chemicals recently added to the AG into families of chemicals, and recommend studies from the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the AG on the feasibility of adding these dual-use chemicals to the two frameworks.

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