Wiltshire poisoning was Novichok nerve agent: police

Two people who fell ill at the weekend were poisoned with the nerve agent. Counter-terror police said expert scientists believe it was the same substance that contaminated Yulia and Sergei Skripal.

A couple who fell seriously ill near the English town of Amesbury were poisoned with the same Novichok nerve agent used in the nearby Skripal incident, British counter-terror police have confirmed.

The Skripal case caused a rift between the UK and Russia, after the UK concluded that the nerve agent used was Soviet-made. Moscow denied the claim and the confrontation led to an exchange of diplomat expulsions.

Experts at the nearby Porton Down, Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) were unclear if the nerve agent was from the "same batch that the Skripals were exposed to," according to the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner of specialist operations, Neil Basu.

What we know so far:

  • A 45-year-old man and a 44-year-old woman were found unconscious on Saturday at a house in a quiet neighborhood of Amesbury in the county of Wiltshire, just 12 kilometers (8 miles) from Salisbury, where the Skripals were poisoned.
  • They are in a critical condition in the same UK hospital where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were treated.
  • Local police have established two help lines to take calls from those who may have concerns about a possible contamination.
  • Police have restricted access to five locations, including a park and a property in Salisbury, and a pharmacy and a community center in Amesbury.

Read more: Skripal poisoning: Germany got Novichok chemical sample from Russia in 1990s

Emergency meeting

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said he would chair a meeting of the government's emergency committee Cobra on Thursday.  "(This) follows the reckless and barbaric attack which took place in Salisbury in March."

The Met's Basu said there was no indication the couple were deliberately targeted, based on what was known about them. But he said it was unclear how the nerve agent was transmitted. 

England's Chief Medical Officer said the risk to the general public remained low.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the incident was being treated "with the utmost seriousness."

What is Novichok? Novichok is a series of highly toxic nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, which have a slightly different chemical composition than the VX nerve agent and sarin poison gases.

The Skripal case: Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, were found slumped over a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury in March. Authorities found they had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in the first known chemical weapons attack on European soil since World War II. Prime Minister Theresa May's government accused Russia of being behind the attack, a charge denied by Moscow, leading to a diplomatic crisis. Both the US and the European Union backed the UK's claim of Russian responsibility.

ng,jm/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Ex-Russian spy poisoned

On March 4, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping center in the British town of Salisbury. Authorities said both were in a critical condition after being exposed to an "unknown substance." Skripal was a former general of Russian military intelligence who had been convicted in Russia for spying for the UK.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia denies involvement

Russia denied any knowledge of the poisoning, which echoed the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. "We see that such a tragic situation happened," Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on March 6. "But we don't have information about what could be the cause, what this person did."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Nerve agent suspected

On March 7, British police said they suspected a very rare nerve agent was behind the poisoning of Skripal. "This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent," Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in a statement. "I can also confirm that we believe the two people originally who became unwell were targeted specifically."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK promises retaliation

British police said more than 21 people had sought medical treatment as a result of the nerve agent attack. On March 8, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that enormous resources were being used to determine who was behind the attack. Rudd called the use of a chemical nerve agent on British soil a "brazen and reckless" act that would be answered with all possible force.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

May gives Russia a deadline

On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers it was "highly likely" Russia was behind the poisoning. May said the Russian government had either ordered the attack or lost control of the Russian-produced chemical nerve agent Novichok. She gave Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to explain its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

EU supports UK

On March 13, vice president of the European Commission European Union, Valdis Dombrovskis, said the EU would stand in solidarity with Britain after London accused Russia of being behind the nerve agent attack. When asked if the EU might impose sanctions of Russia if it was agreed Moscow was responsible for the attack, Dombrovskis said: "Of course, the UK can count on EU solidarity in this regard."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia calls UK bluff

Russia failed to respond to May’s midnight deadline for an explanation of its suspected involvement in the poisoning. On March 14, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in London said Moscow would not respond "until it receives samples of the chemical substance." May had said a "full range" of retaliatory measures would be considered if Moscow did not give a "credible response" by the deadline.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK announces expulsions of diplomats

After Russia failed to give an explanation, May announced on March 14 that the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats identified as "undeclared intelligence officers." May also said the UK would suspend all high-level bilateral contact with Russia. The biggest expulsions from London in 30 years would "fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability for years to come," May said.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

France, Germany, UK, US blame Russia

On March 15, the leaders of France, Germany, the UK and US released a joint statement that demanded "complete disclosure" from Russia saying there is "no plausible alternative" to Moscow's involvement. The statement said the attack using "a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia" constituted "an assault on UK sovereignty" that threatened "the security of us all."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia expels British diplomats

In retaliation to the UK, Russia said it would also expel 23 British diplomats, giving them the same one-week deadline. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it would also close the British Council in Russia, and might take further measures against Britain in the event of more "hostile steps" from London. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had said Moscow would "of course" respond with expulsions.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Putin dismisses claims as 'nonsense'

"It's complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup," Putin said on March 19. "It's quite obvious that if it were a military-grade nerve agent, people would have died on the spot." Putin said Moscow "destroyed all our chemical weapons under international oversight unlike some of our partners."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK says Novichok was used

On March 20, UK scientists determined Skripal was poisoned using a little-known nerve agent from a group of chemical compounds known as Novichok. The family of compounds, which were developed in the 1970s and 80s, comprise numerous nerve agents. The Soviets once developed these weapons to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention. Novichok-5 and Novichok-7 are supposed to be the most dangerous.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Mass Russian diplomat expulsions

A number of EU countries teamed together on March 26 and simultaneously announced they would be expelling Russian diplomats. Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia and Ukraine all announced they would be expelling Russian envoys. The US followed suit with the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and announced the closure of Moscow's consulate in Seattle.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Poison on front door

UK police found the highest concentration of the nerve agent on the front door of the Skripal's family home in Salisbury. They believe that is where Skripal and his daughter must have first come into contact with the poison. It was likely mixed in with a "gloopy substance" smeared on the door handle.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

New Novichok victims

In early July, weeks after both Skripals were discharged from the Salisbury hospital, another two people were apparently poisoned with the same substance in the nearby town of Amesbury. A 45-year-old man and a 44-year-old woman were found unconscious and were transported to the same hospital in critical condition.

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