A second case of poisoning with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok in southwestern England raised fears Thursday that the massive cleanup effort that followed the sickening of a former Russian spy and his daughter failed to remove all of the substance from the area.
British officials announced late Wednesday that specialists have determined that a couple in their 40s were poisoned by the same lethal toxin — developed by the Soviet Union — that almost killed Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March. The new victims are both critically ill in the same hospital that treated the Skripals.
The unexplained poisoning of two British citizens with no immediately apparent link to Russia has raised public health concerns in the Salisbury area, where a massive decontamination effort took place after the Skripals were found to have been poisoned with Novichok.
Security Minister Ben Wallace told BBC Thursday that the working assumption is that the two are victims of the consequences of the earlier attack and that they were not directly targeted.
He said at this point counterterrorism police see no evidence linking the new victims to the Skripals.
Wallace said he understands the Novichok finding is causing anxiety in the Salisbury area and acknowledged that intelligence services cannot offer a 100 percent guarantee of public safety — there is low risk but not zero risk, he said.
Prime Minister Theresa May has blamed the Russian state for the attack on the Skripals — an assertion the Kremlin denies — and Wallace said the Russian government could “put this wrong right” by providing details about the Skripal poisoning.
The new case has surfaced at a sensitive time when the English soccer squad is advancing in the World Cup, staged this year in Russia, and days before a NATO summit expected to focus in part on worsening relations between Russia and the West.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is chairing a meeting of the British government’s COBRA emergency committee on Thursday morning.
Local police declared the case a “major incident” Wednesday, four days after the couple — identified by friends as 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess and 45-year-old Charlie Rowley — were found collapsed at a residential building in Amesbury, eight miles (13 kilometers) from Salisbury, where the Skripals were poisoned.
Britain’s senior counter-terrorism police official Neal Basu said police do not know whether the nerve agent came from the same batch that left the Skripals fighting for their lives.
“The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of inquiry for us,” he said late Wednesday night.
Initially, the investigation was led by local police, but Basu said counterterrorism detectives were taking charge after the substance was identified as Novichok. He said 100 officers had been assigned to the case.
Police said officers were initially called Saturday morning about a collapsed woman, then were summoned back in the evening after a man fell ill at the same property. Police at first thought the two had taken a contaminated batch of heroin or crack.
Police cordoned off a home in Amesbury, believed to be Rowley’s, and other places the pair visited, including a church, a pharmacy and a park in Salisbury, near where the Skripals were found.
The Skripals’ illness initially baffled doctors after they were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury. Scientists at the Porton Down defense laboratory concluded they had been poisoned with Novichok, a type of nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was believed to have been on the front door of Sergei Skripal’s home.
After spending weeks in critical condition, the Skripals were released from the hospital and taken to an undisclosed location for their protection. Doctors say they don’t know the long-term prognosis.