The nerve agent that killed a Wiltshire woman could last for 50 years if it remains in a container, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer has said.
Neil Basu told a packed public meeting in Amesbury that no forensic link had been established between the novichok that poisoned Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, and that which led to the collapse of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia – and it was possible a scientific link is never established.
But Basu, an assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police who leads the police counter-terrorism network, said he believed it was implausible there was no connection between the two incidents.
He said it was possible the pair had picked up a container of novichok at the time of the Skripal attack in March but had only now opened it. He accepted there could even be several containers of novichok – but it was impossible to know.
Basu also said for the first time that a “particular” area of Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, rather than the whole park, was a focus. He said it would be several more weeks, if not months, before the investigation was over.
The assistant commissioner said he hoped Rowley, who had now regained consciousness in hospital, would be able to tell them where they had found the container and detectives were at the hospital waiting to speak to him.
Basu also gave more detail on the attack on the Skripals. “They had no idea they were being targeted,” he said. “They had no idea they had been contaminated.”
He reiterated that police believed the place where they had been poisoned was their front door.
Basu also said he did not believe there was much novichok in Salisbury – because the attackers would have been “foolish” to carry a large amount in. He said he did not believe Sturgess and Rowley were targeted.
“I think they are the unluckiest people ever,” he added.
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.
He gave an extraordinary insight into the difficulty of searching for the novichok. He said that it took experts – all volunteers – 40 minutes to change into their protective suits and 40 minutes to “de-robe”. They were working in 40C (104F) inside the two main properties that are under investigation and could only work for 15 minutes at a time, compared with up to six hours in March. This meant they could only carry out one, two or three swabbings each session. Their blood was tested as they went in and as they left.
Paul Cosford, the medical director for Public Health England, specified that the novichok was in liquid form. He said it took effect between three and 12 hours after exposure, suggesting they could have come into contact with the nerve agent in the early hours of Saturday 30 June.
Asked how long the novichok could last, Cosford said: “If it was outside, exposed to the elements, it gets washed away and that’s safe. Anything left over from March just wouldn’t be there by now.
“If it’s in an enclosed container it takes a long time before it becomes inactive.”
Basu was asked what would happen if it was in a landfill site now. He said: “If it was sealed in a container in a landfill site it would effectively be safe because it would not be touched by anyone. It would last probably, I’ve been told by scientists, for 50 years.”
A member of the audience suggested that authorities had not been looking for the novichok until the latest incident. Basu replied: “I take your point and I know you are really concerned about it.”
He added: “We have not found the container. You are absolutely right that I have no idea what it looked like.”
Dawn Sturgess, who died on Sunday after exposure to the nerve agent novichok. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Earlier a spokeswoman for Salisbury district hospital confirmed that Rowley had regained conscousness..
Lorna Wilkinson, the hospital’s director of nursing, said: “While this is welcome news, clearly we are not out of the woods yet. Charlie Rowley is still very unwell and will continue to require specialist, round-the-clock care.”
The news came as England’s chief medical adviser ratcheted up warnings to people living in the area.
Dame Sally Davies warned parents living in Salisbury and Amesbury in Wiltshire to make sure their children did not pick up any objects and also told residents to steer clear of discarded items that could contain liquid or gel.
Police and service personnel are searching for the object, believed to be a container of some sort, that Sturgess and her partner, Rowley, came into contact with before collapsing. Sturgess died in hospital on Sunday.
Davies said: “I want to emphasise to everyone in the Salisbury and Amesbury area that nobody, adult or child, should pick up any foreign object which could contain liquid or gel, in the interests of their own safety.
“This in practice means do not pick up containers, syringes, needles, cosmetics or similar objects, made of materials such as metal, plastic or glass.
“This is particularly important as families are starting to prepare for their children’s summer holidays and so I am asking that people are extra vigilant. To be clear: do not pick up anything that you haven’t dropped yourself.”
While the main theory the police are following is that both Sturgess and Rowley handled a contaminated object, another possibility being considered is just one of them did so and passed it on to the other, perhaps as they held hands.
The investigation has spread to another site, 40 miles from Salisbury.
A car was seized from a residential street in Swindon on Monday evening after the death of Sturgess. Military personnel wearing gloves and gas masks were seen wrapping a white Audi in plastic, loading it on to a lorry and taking it away.
The car is believed to belong to a paramedic who attended Rowley’s address when he and Sturgess collapsed. It is understood that the paramedic is fit and healthy.
The couple became ill on 30 June at Rowley’s home in Amesbury, 32 miles (51km) south of Swindon. Police opened a murder investigation after Sturgess died in hospital on Sunday night.
The Audi is at least the third vehicle to have been seized since then. On Sunday night, service personnel wearing protective gloves and breathing apparatus towed a red van away from a road in Durrington, near Amesbury. It is thought Rowley travelled in the van shortly before collapsing.
A bus the couple caught from Salisbury to Amesbury was also seized and tested at the Porton Down government laboratory but declared clear of novichok.
Sturgess’s family said her death had been devastating. “Dawn will always be remembered by us as a gentle soul who was generous to a fault. She would do anything for anybody and those who knew Dawn would know that she would gladly give her last penny to somebody in need.
“She had the biggest of hearts and she will be dreadfully missed by both her immediate and wider family. Our thoughts and prayers also go out to Charlie and his family and we wish Charlie a speedy recovery.”