An urgent investigation is under way to discover how a British couple have been left critically ill by the nerve agent novichok, the same military grade poison that nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter four months ago.
Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, announced that expert scientists in chemical warfare at the world famous Porton Down laboratory had established that novichok had caused the collapse in Wiltshire of British nationals Dawn Sturgess, 44, from Salisbury, and Charlie Rowley, 45, of Amesbury.
They were taken ill at their home on Saturday, 8 miles (12km) from the Salisbury home of Sergei Skripal, who sold Russian secrets to Britain, and his daughter Yulia. They were attacked with novichok smeared on to their front door in March.
Britain holds Russia responsible for the attack on the Skripals in an incident that led to widespread criticism of the Kremlin and soured relations with the west.
Initially police thought that drugs had caused Sturgess and Rowley’s severe illness. But British security officials said the Porton Down test results on Wednesday showed novichok, developed by the Russian military, was to blame for the poisoning. They believed the danger to the public posed by the highly toxic materials used in March had been cleaned up and had thus passed.
Basu said investigators and scientists did not know how the British couple had been exposed to the nerve agent. Paramedics were first called to a home on Muggleton Road in Amesbury at 10.15am on Saturday after Sturgess collapsed. Five hours later Rowley was taken ill.
They were taken to the Salisbury district hospital where the Skripals were treated.
Basu, an assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police who leads the police counter-terrorism network said: “From initial assessment it was thought that the two patients had fallen ill after using drugs from a potentially contaminated batch.
“However … due to concerns over the symptoms the man and woman were displaying, samples from both patients were sent to Porton Down laboratory for analysis.
“Following the detailed analysis of these samples, we can confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent novichok, which has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.”
Basu said on Wednesday evening that no one else had complained of the symptoms associated with novichok poisoning.
On Thursday night a senior Government source told the Press Association it was believed there was cross-contamination of the same batch of nerve agent involved in the “reckless” Salisbury attack, as opposed to a secondary attack.
“They [the authorities] have never been able to ascertain the item used to deposit the Novichok and it’s possible the pair have come into contact with that item”, the source said.
It is understood investigators are working on a theory that the pair came into contact with the substance in a part of Salisbury city centre that was outside the original clean-up area.
Throughout Wednesday, after the local Wiltshire police declared a major incident, and while the Porton Down test results were awaited, several sites were cordoned off as a precautionary measure while the couple’s exact movements from around 10pm on Friday were tracked.
Basu said there was nothing in the backgrounds of Sturgess or Rowley that would suggest they would be a target for a deliberate attack – they have no connections to the intelligence or security communities.
Flanked by the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, and amid speculation the British couple had been struck down by sites still contaminated after the attempted assassination of the Skripals, Basu said: “I do want to reassure the public, however, that there is no evidence that either the man or woman recently visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
The Wiltshire area will see scores of counter-terrorism investigators and others in protective suits searching for evidence in the days to come. Basu said it would be up to scientists at Porton Down to determine if the British couple were poisoned by the same batch of novichok used against the Skripals: “I appreciate that there will be a great deal of speculation as to whether this incident is linked to the events in Salisbury in March.
Map showing where the two people where found
“I would add that the complex investigation into the attempted murders of Yulia and Sergei remains ongoing and detectives continue to sift through and assess all the available evidence and are following every possible lead to identify those responsible, for what remains a reckless and barbaric criminal act.
“However, 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.”
Davies said the risk to the public remains low.Home secretary Sajid Javid will chair a meeting of the government criss committee Cobra.
Sam Hobson, 29, a friend of the couple, described how on Saturday morning Sturgess fell ill and was taken to hospital. Later that morning Rowley also became sick.
He said both were in hospital in isolation and he was receiving regular calls from the authorities to check he was well.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
While the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert said the agents did not degrade fast in the environment and had ‘an additional toxicity that was not well understood. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought they can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional nerve agents.
While laboratories that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.
Hobson said he and the couple spent time in Queen Elizabeth Gardens on Friday. “We were having a drink and chilling in the sun,” he said.
They visited a number of shops, including a Boots chemist to buy red, white and blue dye for their hair to show their support for the England football team, a mobile phone shop, and a store to buy alcohol. They bought food and visited a charity shop to buy a blanket to sit on.
Hobson visited Rowley’s home in Muggleston Road on Saturday morning. Sturgess, who lives in Salisbury, had spent the night there. “I saw lots of ambulances there and [Sturgess] got taken out on a stretcher. She needed to be helped with her breathing,” Hobson said. Rowley came out in tears. “They said she needed to have a brain scan.”
After she was taken to hospital Hobson and Rowley went to Boots in Amesbury. Later they went to a hog roast at the local baptist church. Both the chemist and the church have been sealed off. Police have also cordoned off Raleigh Garden Green, where the hog roast took place on Saturday afternoon.
Hobson said: “We went back to his place after the hog roast. We were going up to the hospital. Then he started sweating. His T-shirt was soaking wet. He got up and started rocking against the wall. His eyes were wide open and red, his pupils were like pinpricks. He began garbling incoherently and I could tell he was hallucinating. He was making weird noises and acting like a zombie. I phoned an ambulance.”
‘He felt he had been poisoned’: friend on Wiltshire couple feared exposed to nerve agent – video
He said the couple had been together for a few months and neither worked. Hobson said they both also had one child by other partners.
Neighbours expressed alarm at the incident. Amy Ireland, 32, said the estate was packed with firefighters, police and paramedics on Saturday. “We were on our way back from my 10-year-old son’s football presentation. There was a huge commotion. Cordons were set up and people were being moved back,” she said.
“People thought it was a gas leak at first. Now we don’t know what to think. It’s very worrying. My son plays out here on the green. First Salisbury, now this.”
The British investigation into the attack on the Skripals believes the poison was smeared on to the door of the victims’ house no more than 24 hours before they collapsed.