British police have confirmed that two people critically ill in hospital in southern England have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok – the same substance that poisoned a former Russian spy and his daughter earlier this year.
A major incident was declared when a man and a woman in their 40s – both British nationals – were found unconscious at a house on Saturday in the town of Amesbury, near Salisbury.
The couple in question – Dawn Sturgess, 44 and Charlie Rowley, 45 – who were initially suspected of overdosing on contaminated illegal drugs – are being treated at Salisbury District Hospital.
Amesbury is close to the city of Salisbury, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a bench on March 4 in an incident that sparked a diplomatic crisis with Russia.
“The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of inquiry for us,” Neil Basu, head of Britain’s counter-terrorism police force, told reporters on Wednesday.
“The priority for the investigation team now is to establish how these two people have come into contact with this nerve agent,” Basu added.
An emergency cabinet meeting, chaired by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, will be held in London on Thursday as the counter-terrorism police continue to probe the incident.
Police on Wednesday said sites that it believed the duo had frequented would be cordoned off overnight as a precaution.
“It’s not just Amesbury, but also the nearby city of Salisbury, which has had areas shut off, like this park near where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious earlier this year,” said Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Amesbury.
Public Health England – UK’s national health body – has said that there is no significant health risk to the public, but counter-terrorism police have now taken over the investigation.
Basu, who is heading the probe, said there was no evidence to suggest that the pair “were targeted in any way”.
Salisbury came under intense scrutiny when the Skripals fell victim to poisoning by the nerve agent Novichock.
Tensions in UK-Russian relations escalated after the British government alleged that Russia was behind the attempted assassination.
Moscow has vigorously denied any involvement and suggested that the UK carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.
“Following events in March we have a well-established response to this type of incident and clear processes to follow,” said Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England.
“Our priority at this time is to care for the patients,” she told reporters.