Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD -- The world was reminded of the existence of a deadly Russian-developed nerve agent in March 2018 when a former Russian double agent, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter were found poisoned by it and unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England. The agent was Novichok, which the Russian scientists who developed it claim is five to eight times more potent than VX.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) rose to the occasion and led a world response. In October 2018 at a 41-member OPCW Executive Council meeting, the United States, the Netherlands, and Canada formally proposed adding two families of Novichok-series agents to the OPCW list of banned substances.
The U.S. State Department led the U.S. effort to garner support for the technical change proposal and to ensure that the proposal would be adopted. The State Department tapped the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center’s Robert Kristovich, Ph.D., and Frederic Berg, Ph.D., to provide technical expertise. Specifically, they presented the underlying science behind Novichok’s lethality to members of the OPCW States Parties in order to pass the proposal at its next annual all-members meeting.
Kristovich was selected to lead the Center’s efforts because he has been a toxicologist specializing in chemical agent lethality his entire career and had developed the deep scientific understanding required to explain the need to counter the proliferation of this deadly compound.
“To develop the argument, we had to thoroughly analyze the agent to determine its degree of toxicity, its molecular stability, and how easy or hard it is to produce,” said Kristovich. “I had a lot of help from extremely knowledgeable chemists from around the Center and was strongly supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Joint Science and Technology Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, and the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense. In this whole-of-nation chemical biological defense program approach, we determined that, by all counts, Novichok is a very, very bad thing to have in the hands of a bad guy.”
Kristovich and the team of Center experts got to work building the case for adding Novichok to the OPCW’s Schedule 1 list of banned chemical materials. They provided an educational briefing to the participating states of the French-led International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons and on the margins of the Fourth OPCW Review Conference in November 2018. Then in November 2019, after more than a year’s work, the proposal was adopted at the 24th Session of the OPCW Conference of the States Parties. The members not only unanimously passed the resolution, they all stood and applauded, a very rare show of appreciation in OPCW history and one deserving for the first ever change to the list of banned chemicals.
Kristovich looks back at this coordinated international response with satisfaction. “We proved that the U.S. Chemical Biological Defense Program and the OPCW possess such a technological lead in chemical agent detection and defense that it makes no sense for another nation or group to even try to use these materials.”