Malaysian police revealed they’ve discovered traces of a highly toxic nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who was murdered in Kuala Lumpur earlier in February.
The toxic nerve agent, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “is the deadliest nerve agent ever created.”
Clear, odourless, tasteless and with the consistency of motor oil, the toxic nerve agent is commonly known under its US military code name “VX”. It is so fast acting, says the CFR, that a known antidote to the toxin would have to be administered “almost immediately to have a chance at survival.”
VX, also known as O-ethyl S-diisopropylaminomethyl methylphosphonothiolate, is 100 times more toxic than the nerve gas Sarin.
Sarin, depending on the dosage, can kill within minutes causing convulsions, paralysis and extreme pain.
VX is so deadly the United Nations classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction. Ten milligrams of the substance, just a drop, absorbed through the skin is enough to kill within minutes.
According to Malaysian police investigating the murder, one of the women suspected of carrying out the attack on Kim, fell ill and began vomiting.
The nerve agent was fist synthesised in the 1950s by British scientist Ranaji Ghosh. Ghosh worked as chemist for the Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain.
By the mid to late 50s, the chemical was shared with the United States, which began full-scale production in 1961.# Its chemical structure would be published 11 years later.
How does it work?
VX, like most other nerve agents, works by disrupting the body’s central nervous system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), VX interrupts “the proper operation of an enzyme that acts as the body’s ‘off switch’ for glands and muscles.”
Without this “off switch”, overstimulated muscles, spasm uncontrollably, tire and eventually fail. VX’s only known use is for chemical warfare, the CDC says.
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Symptoms of VX exposure can also include nausea, heat failure, loss of consciousness and respiratory failure.
What makes the chemical so dangerous, according to the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, is that VX is relatively stable. It has high viscosity and low volatility and can be delivered either as a liquid or as vapour. It can also act as an adhesive.
According to the university, VX stops “the brain from sending nerve messages down the spinal cord within thirty seconds. Any epidermal exposure or inhalation and you’ll know. A twinge at the small of your back as the poison seizes your nervous system. Your muscles freeze, you can’t breathe, and you spasm so hard you break your own back and spit your guts out. But this is after your skin melts off.”
Who has VX?
Countries like the United States and Russia have admitted to having stockpiles of the nerve agent.
According to the CFR, the United States has destroyed an estimated 9 percent of its stock, while Russia has made similar promises.
Countries like Iraq and Syria are thought to have successfully synthesised the nerve agent. The Iraqi army is suspected of having carried out several VX attacks, first against Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and again on the Kurdish town of Halabja, although there is no conclusive evidence, the CFR says.
The only confirmed instance VX was ever used, other than for the assassination of Jim Jong-Nam, was by the Aum Supreme Truth death cult.
The doomsday cult killed 12 people in the Tokyo metro in 1995 by releasing Sarin gas. They also used VX injections in assassination attempts of cult enemies, killing one person.