Cobra committee meeting called after couple exposed to same nerve agent as Sergei Skripal

A major incident has been declared in Wiltshire after it was suspected two people might have been exposed to an unknown substance in Amesbury.

The man and woman, both in their 40s, are in a critical condition at Salisbury District Hospital, Wiltshire Police said.

The force said it was not clear if a crime had been committed, although a number of scenes in the Amesbury and Salisbury area have been cordoned off as a precaution.

The UK's head of counter-terrorism policing Neil Basu and chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies speaking at a news conference at New Scotland Yard in London after a couple were left in a critical condition when they were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok in Amesbury, Wiltshire.

The pair were found unconscious at an address in Muggleton Road on Saturday evening and it was initially believed that they may have taken illegal drugs.

However, further testing is now ongoing to establish the substance which led to these patients becoming ill and we are keeping an open mind as to the circumstances surrounding this incident.

-police

Counter-terrorism teams from Scotland Yard were called in to lead the investigation when Wiltshire Police was faced with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

On Wednesday morning Scotland Yard was referring media calls to Wiltshire Police.

On Muggleton Road, where the man and woman were found, there was one police officer on duty outside a block of newly-built flats.

The road is on an estate which is still under construction.

Around two miles away there was another police cordon at Amesbury Baptist Centre, also guarded by one police officer.

It is believed one of the last places the couple were seen in public was a family fun day at Amesbury Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon.

Roy Collins, church secretary, said: "Last weekend we held a community fundraiser and we understand this may well be the last event this couple went to in public."

He said he woke to find the church cordoned off by police at 6am on Wednesday.

The UK's head of counter-terrorism policing Neil Basu speaking at a news conference at New Scotland Yard in London after a couple were left in a critical condition when they were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok in Amesbury, Wiltshire.

"We are all quite puzzled and shocked - naturally the connection with Salisbury and recent events there mean there is a heightened public interest," he added.

"We are praying for the couple, one of our members knows them and clearly there are concerns for them and any others in the community.

"They are not church members or regulars."

Novichok: What exactly is it?

Police have confirmed that a man and a woman from Amesbury, who are in a critical condition, have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok.

It is the same substance used in the attack and poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.

– What is Novichok?

A group of nerve agents which are more potent and lethal than VX or sarin.

They are made of two separate non-toxic substances that work as a nerve agent when brought together.

Dr Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, said: “Novichok is not really very different from all the classics, you’ve got the same basic chemical framework at the heart of it.

“I’m not sure it’s ever really been used. There’s not much experience of seeing these things, they would have recognised it was some sort of nerve agent, which is part of the reason for the delay [in identifying it].”

– Why was it created?

Novichok, which means newcomer in Russian, was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s as a new kind of chemical weapon that would be harder to detect, more potent than existing nerve agents and exempt from the Chemical Weapons Treaty.

Dr Sella said: “Novichok agents are ones that were kept very quiet by the Russians and developed to try and gain advantage against the more conventional things they knew Western governments had.”

– How does it work?

Novichok and other nerve agents attack the nervous system and stop chemical messages getting around the body.

They cause the heart to slow down and airways to become constricted, leading to suffocation or brain damage.

“It must be excruciatingly painful and unbelievably violent,” Dr Sella said.

“You have very painful muscle contractions, vision goes pretty quickly and what little you can see is blurred, then you can’t breathe.”

– What are the symptoms?

Nerve agents, including Novichok, can be inhaled as a fine powder, absorbed through the skin or ingested.

Symptoms can start within seconds or minutes of being exposed and include convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death.

– How can it be treated?

The treatment for nerve agents is to administer an antidote immediately, but some of the damage from the chemical and oxygen starvation can be irreparable.

It is not known if there is an antidote available for Novichok.


Related Articles

Gold for Rhys McClenaghan in the Pommel Horse at European Championships

Apartment block next to Phoenix Park gets green light despite 'visual blight' claim

How clean is your desk? The unwelcome reality of office hygeine

Mulkerrins: It’s ‘kill’ or be killed at the worlds

More in this Section

Pain-relieving drug reduces need for epidural during labour – study

Firefighter killed battling California blaze

Rare cancer could be detected earlier by GPs using simple blood tests

Corbyn in Twitter spat with Israeli PM over Palestinian remembrance event


Lifestyle

New father’s life ‘changed forever’ after he was run over by surgeon

More From The Irish Examiner