The investigation into Russia’s suspected use of novichok in Britain intensified after police found a bottle containing the military-grade nerve agent in a Wiltshire home where a British couple fell ill after being poisoned by it.
Counter-terrorism officers in protective suits found the container – believed to have contaminated Charles Rowley and killed Dawn Sturgess at a property in Amesbury, Wiltshire on or around 30 June – after six days of searches.
The Guardian understands tests show both Sturgess and Rowley handled the bottle with their right hands.
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.
Investigations continue on several fronts. Police have been trying to discover how the bottle and nerve agent got there, while chemical weapons experts at Porton Down were testing the substance to see if it was from the same batch as used in Britain four months earlier – a finding that carries huge diplomatic implications.
Sturgess, 44, died on Sunday, around nine days after she and Rowley, 45, were exposed to novichok. Police believe the nerve agent that contaminated the couple was discarded during the March attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in their Salisbury home. Skripal has been regarded by Vladimir Putin’s regime as a traitor for selling state secrets and then defecting to Britain.
Scientists hope there will be enough novichok left in the bottle for them to determine whether it came from the same batch used in the Skripal attack. They will compare whatever is left in the bottle with a small sample recovered from the door of the Skripal’s home. They now have small quantities from both incidents in their possession.
If the samples are found to be from the same batch, it would mean whomever ordered and carried out the Skripal attack would be suspects in the murder investigation launched after Sturgess died in hospital.
Britain believes those who tried to murder the Skripals were under the control and direction of the Russian state. The criminal inquiry and diplomatic implications only seem to be growing after the discovery of the bottle containing the novichok in Rowley’s home.
The Guardian understands that experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be invited to Britain to check if the findings that Rowley and Sturgess were poisoned by novichok and other key findings are correct.
It would be a prelude to putting further pressure on Moscow with the March novichok attack leading to the expulsion of Russian diplomats by Britain and other countries as a show of outrage against the Putin regime’s use of the nerve agent in the territory of a sovereign country.
Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command have been leading the investigations into the nerve agent poisonings.
On 29 June Sturgess and Rowley were in several locations around Salisbury, including a homeless hostel where she lived. They travelled by bus to Rowley’s Amesbury home where they are believed to have spent the night.
The following day they both fell ill, with police announcing on 4 July that Porton Down scientists had found the British couple had been exposed to novichok.
Searches began on 6 July of Rowley’s home and it was not until Wednesday that the bottle was discovered by officers, who were battling searing sunshine and protective suits to stop them being exposed to the lethal toxin.
In a statement announcing the discovery of the source of the novichok, police said: “On Wednesday 11 July, a small bottle was recovered during searches of Charlie Rowley’s house in Amesbury.
“It was taken to the defence, science and technology laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire, for tests.
“Following those tests, scientists have now confirmed to us that the substance contained within the bottle is novichok. Further scientific tests will be carried out to try to establish whether it is from the same batch that contaminated Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March – this remains a main line of inquiry for police.
“Inquiries are under way to establish where the bottle came from and how it came to be in Charlie’s house.”
Searches at other sites in Salisbury continue, including the homeless hostel where Sturgess lived and Queen Elizabeth Garden, a park where both had been the day before they fell ill. Police have not ruled out that other dangerous material may still be out there.
Rowley has recovered consciousness and has begun talking to detectives waiting by his bedside. He and Sturgess are believed to have handled the bottle, with novichok recovered from swabbing of their right hands.
Neil Basu, the head of UK counter-terrorism policing, said: “This is clearly a significant and positive development. However, we cannot guarantee that there isn’t any more of the substance left and cordons will remain in place for some considerable time. This is to allow thorough searches to continue as a precautionary measure for public safety and to assist the investigation team.
“The risk to the public in Salisbury and Amesbury remains low. We have not seen any further cases of illness linked to this incident. As a precaution Public Health England continues to advise the public not to pick up any strange items such as syringes, needles, cosmetics or similar objects made of materials such as metal, plastic or glass.”