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What is the VX nerve agent that killed North Korean Kim Jong-nam?

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Declared a weapon of mass destruction by the UN, the banned chemical agent is more potent than any other

Malaysian police have revealed that the nerve agent VX was used to kill Kim Jong-nam when he was attacked at Kuala Lumpurs international airport.

What is VX?

VX is the deadliest nerve agent ever created. Just a tiny drop absorbed through the skin is enough to cause fatal disruption of the nervous system, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

It is 100 times more deadly than the nerve gas sarin, which was used by members of a Japanese doomsday cult in their deadly 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway.

VX is hard to detect. It is a clear, tasteless and colourless liquid with a consistency something like engine oil.

So potent is VX that the UN classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction. The CDC, the US governments top public health agency, says its only known use is in chemical warfare.

Its full chemical name is S-2 Diisoprophylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate.

What are its origins?

VX was first synthesised in the early to mid-1950s by Ranaji Ghosh, a chemist working for Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain.

Its toxicity and physical properties were studied by the British military which passed the formula on to the US military [PDF], according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington. The US began full-scale production of VX in 1961.

The US army was involved in several controlled and accidental releases of VX gas. Iraq was reported to have produced over 50 tonnes. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq is thought to have used VX in a 1988 attack against the Kurds and during the Iran-Iraq war.

Who has VX?

The US and Russia are the only countries that have admitted owning VX stockpiles, but more countries are believed to hold it.

The US destroyed a small portion of its stockpile under the Chemical Weapons Convention and there have been moves for Russia to follow suit.

According to a French intelligence assessment published in September 2013, Syrias chemical weapons stockpile includes several tens of tonnes of VX.

While the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult used sarin gas in its subway attack, it is believed to have used VX injections in assassination attempts on several dissident members and cult opponents. One person was reported to have died.

North Korea claims it has never had a chemical weapons programme. But in fact it is believed to possess between 2,500 and 5,000 tons behind only the US and Russia including VX, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past, the NTI said.

At maximum capacity North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons [of chemical weapons]. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are thought to be the focus of North Korean production.

How does it affect the body?

Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents, according to the CDC.

The V in VX stands for venom, a tribute to this compound class having high potency and a characteristic ability to penetrate the skin, according to the National Academies website.

The centre said exposure to near-lethal and lethal doses quickly causes loss of consciousness, convulsions, flaccid paralysis and apnoea. Just 10 milligrams of VX on the skin is enough to kill.

It is thought possible to treat a VX attack with an injection of multiple antidotes, but the nerve agent works so quickly that a victim would have to be treated immediately to stand any chance of survival.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/24/what-is-vx-nerve-agent-killed-kim-jong-nam-north-korea

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