Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2018 – 1:23 PM
(AFP) The exposure of an apparently random British couple to the same nerve agent used against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, in the same part of southwest England, has sent officials scrambling to discover the source of the contamination.
Here is what we know about the latest incident:
- The poison -
Novichok is a Soviet-designed nerve agent that experts say is far more potent than more familiar toxins such as VX or sarin.
The name is Russian for “newbie” or “newcomer”.
Nerve agents affect the central nervous system by disrupting communication between the brain, the main organs and muscles.
Samples from both patients, who fell ill on Saturday, were sent to Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory on Monday due to concern over their symptoms.
Preliminary results indicated Tuesday that they may have been exposed to a nerve agent and police told reporters on Wednesday it was Novichok.
Police say they have not been able to establish whether the susbtance was from the same batch used against Skripal.
- The couple affected -
The two people struck down have been named locally as 44-year-old man Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, 45.
Sturgess fell ill first, according to a friend who spoke to Rowley and called the ambulance when Rowley himself became ill hours later.
Police said they were first contacted by the hospital on Saturday after Rowley was admitted.
Sturgess was living in a homeless hostel in Salisbury, while Rowley lived in the small town of Amesbury nearby.
A friend said Rowley was a drug user and police said “paraphernalia” found in his house had initially led them to believe that the couple had fallen ill after consuming contaminated crack cocaine or heroin.
- Investigation -
The local Wiltshire police force said they were first contacted on Saturday when Rowley fell ill. According to mobile phone video footage taken at the scene as he was being taken away, medical personnel were wearing white protective suits at the time.
Counter-terrorism police took over the investigation on Wednesday after the exposure to Novichok was confirmed.
They have said there is no evidence to suggest that the pair “were targeted in any way”, adding that testing has revealed they were exposed by “handling a contaminated item”.
Security minister Ben Wallace has said one possibility is that the two may have been affected as a “consequence of the previous attack” in March.
- Seeking answers from Russia -
Wallace and other government ministers have asked Russia for answers, repeating accusations that the Russian government was involved in the Skripal poisoning that have been consistently denied by Moscow.
Russia responded by accusing Britain of playing “dirty political games” and said London would have to apologise. It said Moscow had proposed a joint investigation but that the proposal remained without response.
- Risk to the public -
British authorities insist there is “a low risk to the general public,” but the apparent randomness of the contamination raises unanswered questions for residents of Salisbury, which was only just returning to normal after finding itself the epicenter of international tensions.
Officials say none of the areas cordoned off in the current investigation overlap with areas that were previously decontaminated after the Skripal poisoning.
Despite urging calm, England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies gave a specific warning on Thursday, telling the public “to be careful of picking up any unknown or already dangerous objects such as needles and syringes”.
- Prognosis -
The couple remain in a critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital, which also treated Skripal, his daughter Yulia and police officer Nick Bailey, who came to assist them.
A hospital spokeswoman said Thursday they were “acutely ill” and the focus of their treatment was “stabilisation”.
All three people hospitalised earlier this year eventually survived, with Sergei Skripal the last to leave hospital, on May 18.
© Agence France-Presse
Britain, Russia tensions spike over new nerve agent case
(AFP) Britain demanded answers from Russia Thursday after a couple was exposed to the same nerve agent used on a former Russian spy and his daughter in an attempted murder blamed on Moscow.
But Russia quickly hit back, denouncing Britain for playing “dirty political games” and demanding London apologise.
The British couple fell ill on Saturday in Amesbury, a small town near the southwestern English city of Salisbury where former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia collapsed on March 4.
That incident triggered a major diplomatic crisis with Russia after Britain and its allies accused Moscow of trying to kill the Skripals — a charge strongly denied by the Kremlin.
Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Speaking to parliament on Thursday, Interior Minister Sajid Javid said a link between the cases was “clearly the main line of inquiry”.
“It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on,” he said.
“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison.”
The remarks sparked a sharp response from Moscow.
“We urge British law enforcement not to get involved in dirty political games,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.
“This government and its representatives will have to apologise to Russia and the international community,” she said.
- Drug paraphernalia found -
Police said tests on the couple, named locally as Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, revealed they were exposed to Novichok, later confirming they had handled “a contaminated item”.
It was not immediately clear what the item was, nor if the substance was from the same batch used on the Skripals.
Sturgess collapsed first, Rowley hours later.
Police initially suspected that the couple had consumed a contaminated batch of illegal drugs, saying they had found “paraphernalia” in the house.
A friend of Rowley’s told AFP that he was a drug user and Sturgess lived in a homeless hostel in Salisbury.
England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies said the public should “be careful of picking up any unknown or already dangerous objects such as needles and syringes”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the case as “very worrying” but said Russia had no information “about what substances were used and how they were used”.
- ‘We cannot detect it’ -
Around 100 counter-terror officers are working alongside police on the investigation, and several sites in Salisbury and Amesbury that were visited by the couple have been cordoned off, including a park and Sturgess’s homeless hostel in Salisbury, as well as a pharmacy, church and the house in Amesbury.
Officials said there was only a “low risk” to the wider public, but urged anyone who had visited the affected sites wash their clothes and wipe down personal items.
Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told AFP the couple likely came into contact accidentally with Novichok residue that may have been discarded.
“The whole search is hugely challenging,” he added. “Novichok’s designed by the Russians to overmatch NATO chemical defence capabilities, we cannot detect it.”
The Novichok used in March was believed to have been smeared on the Skripal’s front door.
Police said there was no evidence the latest victims visited any of the sites linked to the Skripals, which have since been decontaminated.
- ‘In another world’ -
Sam Hobson, a friend of the couple, said he had visited Salisbury with them the day before they fell ill.
Hobson said he went to Rowley’s house on Saturday as Sturgess was being taken to hospital and stayed with Rowley for several hours until he too began to complain of feeling ill.
“He was sweating loads, dribbling, and you couldn’t speak to him,” Hobson said.
“There was no response from him, he didn’t even know I was there. It’s like he was in another world, hallucinating.”
The victim’s brother, Matthew Rowley, told ITV News the Salisbury incidents were “outrageous” and said he had not received any information about his brother’s condition.
Cara Charles-Barks, the chief executive of Salisbury District Hospital, said both of the patients remained in a critical condition.
“Having been exposed to a nerve agent, they are clearly acutely unwell,” she added.
© Agence France-Presse