Novichok Poisoning: British Couple In Critical Condition, Say Police

Two people in southern England are in critical condition after exposure to the same nerve agent that incapacitated a former Russian double agent nearby.

The couple, identified by the British media as Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, fell ill at a house in Amesbury on Saturday, less than eight miles from the site of the last poisoning. Former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter suffered a near-fatal poisoning earlier this year in the nearby town of Salisbury by what British and independent experts identified as the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok.

Police officers stand next to a section of playing field near Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The Skripals eventually recovered after treatment, but not before the British government lead the charge for a major diplomatic pushback against Russia for orchestrating the attack—something Moscow continues to deny. Initially, British authorities said there was "nothing" in the background of the Amesbury couple to suggest they were a target in the same way as the Skripals. Recent tests, however, suggest the same substance is behind the Amesbury poisoning as the attack on the Skripals, according to police.

"Following the detailed analysis of these samples, we can confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok," Neil Basu, Head of U.K. Counter Terrorism Policing, said in a statement Wednesday night. The officer added that after tests at the Porton Down facility, which assisted in diagnosing the poisoning in Salisbury, scientists recognized the use of "the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal."

"The priority for the investigation team now is to establish how these two people have come into contact with this nerve agent," Basu said. "At this stage, no-one else has presented with the same symptoms linked to this incident."

There is no evidence the pair had recently visited the affected areas in Salisbury, which British authorities decontaminated after Skripal's poisoning. Unlike the Skripal case, where he was a naturalized British citizen of Russian origin, while his daughter was Russian, both the victims are British nationals and local to the area. Police are now retracing the couple's steps to determine where the contamination took place.

The Skripal poisoning resulted in a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.K., U.S. and allied countries, despite the Kremlin's insistence that it did not try to poison the ex-spy.

Already, Russian officials have denied they had anything to do with the latest poisoning in the U.K., albeit unprompted by British authorities who have made no allegations against Moscow. "How dumb (do) they think (Russia) is to use 'again' so-called 'Novichok' in the middle of the FIFA World Cup," Russia's embassy to the Netherlands wrote on Twitter on Thursday, stressing the importance of hosting the tournament to Russia. "The show must go on?"

"We are worried by the repeated use of such substances in Europe," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC desk in Russia, categorically denying Russia's involvement. "Although, on the other hand, we have no information about what substance was used."

In backing up the Kremlin's denials, Leonid Rink, a former Soviet state scientist who claims to have worked on the Novichok program, said in May that it is not possible the nerve agent was used as the stated quantity used would be enough to poison "all of Salisbury." If linked, the Amesbury poisoning would be first evidence of additional contamination.

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Another ex-Soviet state chemist, Vladimir Uglev, said he believed Novichok did poison Skripal, but there were several types of nerve agents in the Novichok family. He believed Russia used the A-234 Novichok toxin. A car hit Uglev near his home in Russia shortly after, but he has laughed off the suggestion the incident was deliberate.

This story has been updated to include the Russian government's raction to the poisoning.