Two more people in Great Britain have fallen victim to Novichok, the Russian nerve agent that Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with in Salisbury. Paramedics were called to an Amesbury address, just a few miles from Salisbury, after a man and a woman fell violently ill. Media has identified the couple as Charlie Rowley, age 45, and Dawn Sturgess, age 44 and mother of three.
Authorities declared it a “major incident” early on Wednesday, announcing the couple had been exposed to an “unknown substance”. Wednesday evening, Scotland Yard announced the substance was Novichok.
The working theory is the couple were unintended victims. The BBC reports the couple had been in Salisbury, visiting a park not far from where the Skripals were found collapsed in March.
The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said the most likely hypothesis was that the Novichok was left over from the attack on the Skripals.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said they could not confirm whether the nerve agent came from the same batch but the possibility was “clearly a line of inquiry”.
His officers are examining the couple’s movements to determine where they were poisoned.
So far no contaminated items have been found and the police say they have no idea what the nerve agent was contained in.
Security minister Ben Wallace said: “The working assumption would be these are victims of the consequences of the previous attack or something else but not that they were directly targeted. That could change.”
He called on Russia to fill in the gaps in the Skripal attack and “put this wrong right”.
The Security Minister also said the best intelligence officers are working the case but admits, until all the facts are in, complete reassurance that area residents are not at risk cannot be given. The BBC reports that five sites the couple visited in Ames and Salisbury are now cordoned off in Salisbury and Amesbury, including a church, a Boots pharmacy, a homeless hostel, a Muggleton Road address, and Queen Elizabeth Gardens.
The risk to the general public remains low, says England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies.
However, she advises people who had been in the cordoned-off areas to wash their clothes and wipe down personal items.
Residents at John Baker House, the supported housing where Ms Sturgess is believed to have been staying, have been evacuated and told they will have to be rehoused.
The police warned members of the public against picking anything up if they didn’t know what it was.
Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by Russia in the 70s and 80s. It affects breathing when directly inhaled, ingested, or absorbed by the skin. It causes paralysis by blocking signals from the nerves to the muscles. There are antidotes that can reverse the effects if intervention is quick enough, CBS reports.
It is possible that the couple from Amesbury stumbled across a dangerous amount of the nerve agent, maybe on instruments used in that initial attack.
Unlike most chemical nerve agents, Novichok can remain deadly for long periods of time, according to chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton Gordon.
“Most nerve agents are not very persistent and last for days, possibly weeks,” he tells CBS News. “We understand that Novichoks were designed to last for months, so four months down the line, is obviously still toxic.”
The BBC reports that this may not be the case, however, and the possibility that this is a new attack exists.
However, Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian scientist who first exposed the Novichok programme, cast doubt on the theory, saying Novichok would have decomposed in the four months since the Skripal attack.
He told the BBC this must have been a separate incident because Novichok was unstable, especially in damp conditions.
The Skripals both survived and have been released from the hospital. A friend of Sturgess and Rowley says they are stable.
Great Britain blamed Russia for the initial attack and several countries, including the US, expelled Russian diplomats over the incident. Russia remains defiant, deflecting blame back onto UK officials. According to Russian media, it is a “dodgy story” being used to attack Russia after their “fabulous” hosting of the World Cup. They are calling it “Groundhog Day” and saying the story is being used to detract from the upcoming summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Why It Matters
A GOP delegation of 7 Senators and 1 Representative were in Moscow this week, meeting with Russian officials and speaking glowingly of their hosts. President Trump will be meeting with Vladimir Putin on July 16 for a summit in Helsinki. Reportedly, Trump plans on meeting in private with Putin, no staff will be present to take notes.
The summit will be coming at a time when an ally has been attacked yet again and not long after Trump wondered out loud why Russia can’t be invited back into the G7. The G7 was the G8 until Russia was kicked out for invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 and remains unrepentant. Trump himself is under investigation for his presidential campaign’s actions in the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Russia is not a friend to us or our allies. The GOP, once the party of the man who fearlessly stood in West Germany in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, needs to remember that fact.