Alarm as deadly nerve agent strikes again
How worried should we be? Two seemingly ordinary people are fighting for their lives after being exposed to the same poison that nearly killed a Russian spy and his daughter in March.
It is just over four months since former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter almost died after being poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in the small English city of Salisbury, Wiltshire. The incident caused a diplomatic scandal. There were even calls for England to boycott the World Cup in Russia.
The story seemed to be disappearing into the annals of history. Until now.
Last weekend a couple in Wiltshire were found unconscious. Paramedics were called to a house in Amesbury, a town seven miles from Salisbury, when Dawn Sturgess, 44, collapsed. Later that day her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, 45, also fell ill.
The pair had spent several hours on Friday in Salisbury, where they visited the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which is near where the Skripals were found collapsed. Afterwards, Sturgess returned home to her flat which is just 300 yards from the restaurant where the Skripals had eaten on the day they were poisoned.
Both are known drug addicts, and the police said it was initially thought that they had used contaminated batches of heroin or cocaine.
But on Wednesday, they declared a “major incident” after revealing the couple had been exposed to an “unknown substance”. Later that evening it was confirmed that Novichok was to blame, following research at the Ministry of Defence’s Porton Down laboratory.
The police’s current theory is that they stumbled on a syringe discarded by the original attacker, which would have been almost impossible to spot.
Novichok is so deadly that a minute amount could remain lethal, even four month later. It does not evaporate; the only way to get rid of it is to incinerate it.
But you cannot burn down the whole of Salisbury. As the former head of counter terrorism for the Minister of Defence, Clive Chapman, said: “This is a treasure hunt without clues.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said yesterday: “It is completely unacceptable for… our streets, our parks, our towns, to be dumping grounds for poison.”
How worried should we be?
We should be terrified, say some. With the growing Russian menace there is every chance that there will be another high-profile poisoning. And what if it happens in the centre of London? People would be afraid to travel there in case they too get poisoned. These careless attacks are the perfect way to sow fear and confusion.
Calm down, reply others. This was a unique incident. Remember that all but one of the people who came into physical contact with the Skripals on that fateful day escaped serious contamination. There is also not sufficient evidence to link the Skripal affair to the Russian state. Everyone should keep a sense of perspective.
- Would you visit Salisbury in the knowledge that there may be traces of Novichok still lying around the city?
- Why are we so fascinated by deadly poisons?
- Draw a diagram showing how an individual poison kills a human being.
- Design a timeline of high profile poisonings linked to Russia that have happened in the UK.
Some People Say...
“It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on.”Sajid Javid
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- On Friday, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley spent several hours in an area of Salisbury near where Sergei Skripal and his daughter collapsed after they were poisoned in March. Later that day, Sturgess returned to her home very near the restaurant where the Skripals had eaten that day. The next day, both fell ill in the nearby town of Amesbury, where Rowley lives. We now know that they were poisoned by a nerve agent.
- What do we not know?
- We still do not know exactly why or how Sturgess and Rowley were poisoned. There is nothing in the couple’s background that suggests why they may have been targeted. The police have not found any contaminated items yet and they do not know what the nerve agent was contained in.
- Sergei Skripal
- A former military intelligence colonel in Russia, Skripal was convicted in 2006 of spying for the UK. The Russian secret service accused him of passing on the identities of Russian secret agents in exchange for money. He was later pardoned, and moved to the UK in 2010 as part of a spy swap.
- Meaning “newcomer” in Russian, the name is used to refer to a group of nerve agents that were developed in the 1970s and 80s by the Soviet Union.
- Boycott the World Cup
- Following the Skripal poisoning, Theresa May announced that no ministers or members of the royal family would go to World Cup finals.
- Fell ill
- A friend of Rowley’s said he was “rocking against the wall… His eyes were wide open, glazed and pinpricked, and he was sweating, dribbling and making weird noises.”
- Porton Down
- Porton Down happens to be located very near Salisbury.