Caution tape and teams of hazmat-clad forensic investigators returned to Britain this week after two civilians fell ill from exposure to Novichok, the same nerve agent used in the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the city of Salisbury. This time, the victims were not Russians, but a British couple. And unlike the first poisoning, which the U.K. accused the Russian government of orchestrating (a claim Moscow denies), there is no indication these victims were targeted on purpose.
British authorities confirmed it was the second Novichok poisoning to occur in four months late Wednesday night, four days after 45-year-old Charlie Rowley and 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess fell ill in Amesbury, a city located just seven miles from where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned last March. Like the Skripals, Rowley and Sturgess were found to have exhibited signs of nerve-agent exposure, including convulsions, sweating, and foaming at the mouth. Also like the Skripals, the couple are believed to have come into contact with Novichok during a visit to Salisbury earlier that day. As of this writing, both remain in critical condition.
But there are also some key differences between the two poisonings. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said there is no evidence to suggest either Rowley or Sturgess visited any of the places the Skripals had been to in Salisbury on the day they were poisoned—sites authorities say have since undergone exhaustive testing and decontamination. “Our strong working assumption is that the couple came into contact with the nerve agent in a different location to the sites which have been part of the original clean-up operation,” Javid told British lawmakers Thursday in the House of Commons. Though authorities have yet to determine if both pairs of victims were poisoned from the same batch of Novichok, Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, said Wednesday that there is no evidence to suggest Rowley and Sturgess were targeted deliberately. Sally Davis, the U.K.’s chief medical officer, confirmed the risk to the public remains low.