British Couple Were Poisoned by Novichok Nerve Agent, Police Confirm
LONDON—A man and woman left critically ill in Wiltshire, England, were exposed to Novichok, the same nerve agent that nearly killed ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, police confirmed.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, fell ill on June 30 in their home in Amesbury, just eight miles from the Salisbury home of Skripal. Initially, police believed the two Britons had fallen ill after taking contaminated crack cocaine or heroin.
Neil Basu, assistant commissioner of specialist operations for the Metropolitan Police, confirmed in a statement that scientists at Porton Down laboratory established the pair were exposed to the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Sturgess and Rowley remain in critical condition.
Speaking at the House of Commons on July 5, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said there was “no significant risk” to the public of Novichok poisoning, but warned people to avoid picking up “unknown objects.”
Javid, who was speaking after he chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee, said Russia must explain exactly what happened.
“The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World Cup,” he said.
Basu warned of an increased police presence in the area with officers wearing protective equipment, similar to scenes in Salisbury earlier this year. About 100 detectives from the Counter Terrorism Policing Network are working on the investigation.
Basu said: “I must say that we are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to. The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.
“It is important, however, that the investigation is led by the evidence available and the facts alone and we don’t make any assumptions.”
Britain holds Russia responsible for the poisoning of the Skripals in March.
Russia, which is currently hosting the soccer World Cup, has denied any involvement in the March incident and suggested the British security services had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria.
UK Security Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC’s “Today” program: “The Russian state could put this ‘wrong’ right. They could tell us what happened, what they did and fill in some of the significant gaps that we are trying to pursue.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not know who Wallace was, but that Russia had offered Britain its assistance in investigating the previous nerve agent attack and had been rebuffed.
A senior government source said it was believed there was cross-contamination of the same batch of nerve agent involved in the Salisbury attack, rather than a secondary attack.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that her thoughts are with the victims of Salisbury.
“Once again the public is having to contend with the consequences of two people being exposed to a nerve agent and I would like to personally thank local businesses and residents for their cooperation,” she said.
“The message from Salisbury is clear—it is very much open for business. The government will continue to provide every support to the local community.”
Key Facts About Novichok
- First developed in the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, Novichok, or “newcomer,” is a series of highly toxic nerve agents with a slightly different chemical composition than the more commonly known VX and sarin poison gases.
- The chemical “causes a slowing of the heart and restriction of the airways, leading to death by asphyxiation,” said Gary Stephens, a pharmacology expert at the University of Reading. “One of the main reasons these agents are developed is because their component parts are not on the banned list.”
- The weaponization of any chemical is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Moscow is a signatory.
- Novichok, the fourth generation of poison gas, was made with agrochemicals so that offensive weapons production could be hidden within a legitimate commercial industry, according to U.S. chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson.
Reuters contributed to this report