‘Contaminated item’ source of Amesbury nerve agent poisoning

Two people remain critically ill after coming into contact with an item contaminated with the nerve agent Novichok, counter-terror police have revealed.

Jul 6, 2018
By Kevin Hearty
Chief Constable Kier Pritchard: 'The communities in Salisbury and Amesbury have shown extraordinary resilience and spirit since the events of March 4 this year and I have no doubt they will rise to this latest challenge in the same way'

A 45-year-old man and 44-year-old woman are still fighting for their lives in hospital after being exposed to the lethal agent on Saturday (June 30).

Medics were called to the couple’s home in Amesbury but it later emerged they had visited Salisbury where former Russian secret service officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in March.

Counter-terror detectives from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) have found no evidence that the pair visited any sites that were decontaminated in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning, and revealed that they fell ill after handling an item contaminated with Novichok.

The force is unable to confirm whether the two incidents are connected.

A MPS spokesperson said: “The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down confirmed to police on Wednesday, July 4 that the man and woman had been exposed to Novichok.

“At this stage, no-one else has presented with the same symptoms linked to this incident.

“Following further tests of samples from the patients, we now know that they were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated item.

“Detectives are working as quickly and as diligently as possible to identify the source of the contamination.”

Wiltshire Police declared a major incident on Wednesday (July 4), four days after the couple were taken ill at a property in Amesbury.

Both the man and the woman, named locally as Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, were initially thought to have taken a contaminated batch of drugs.

However, testing at the Porton Down facility revealed their symptoms were a result of exposure to Novichok.

This same substance was used in March to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, around nine miles from where the latest victims fell ill.

Mr and Ms Skripal, along with Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey who was also poisoned during the incident, have since recovered. The couple involved in the second incident remain in a critical condition in hospital.

Counter-terrorism police have taken the lead for the investigation and have cordoned off a number of sites known to have been visited by the pair in the hours before they collapsed.

These include John Baker House in Salisbury, which was evacuated on Thursday (July 5) in preparation for officers to begin work there.

The BBC reports that a government scientist claims it is unlikely the contaminated item would have been left in the open before the couple touched it.

The source reportedly said that Novichok can be degraded by weather conditions, so the object was most likely in a contained space.

The MPS said it is not currently in a position to state whether the nerve agent used in the most recent incident was from the same batch the Skripals were exposed to.

It added that the focus of its investigation remains identifying the source of the contamination as quickly as possible.

The investigation into the attempted murder of the Skripals is ongoing.

Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard said: “We, like our communities and the wider public, are shocked that a second major incident of a similar nature has unfolded in Wiltshire.

“That said, we’ve learned a vast amount from the first incident back in March and that has greatly informed our multi-agency response to the incident in Amesbury and Salisbury.

“The communities in Salisbury and Amesbury have shown extraordinary resilience and spirit since the events of March 4 this year and I have no doubt they will rise to this latest challenge in the same way.”

The Government has blamed Russia for the incident and called on it to explain the circumstances behind it.

Russia denies any responsibility for either poisoning.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on so that the most appropriate course of action can be taken.

“Let me be clear, we do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian government that continue to undermine our security and that of the international community.

“We will stand up to actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets. Or for our streets, our parks or our towns to be dumping grounds for poison.”

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