Russian Chemical Concoction Used in UK Spy Attack Kills British Woman
Two Brits were walking in the street near their home and picked up a curious looking vial. Two weeks later, one of them was dead and the other fighting for his life.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, 45, didn’t realize that the vial had an apparent connection to an alleged sinister Russian plot. Sturgess died July 8 and Rowley is still fighting for his life. Both victims are from the sleepy little town of Amesbury in the southern United Kingdom area of Wiltshire. Last month, the pair was poisoned by exposure to the Russian nerve agent known as Novichok.
The two became ill on June 30. Rowley is still seriously ill in the hospital, out of his coma, but Sturgess, a mother of three, died. Investigators found the small vial in Rowley’s home, and are now trying to determine exactly how it got there. They think the couple picked it up off the street. They’ll ask Rowley about it as soon as he is able to help with the investigation.
Sergei Skripal and Daughter Yulia
Sturgess lives just 300 yards from the restaurant where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had dinner before returning home, where they were poisoned with Novichok in March.
Skripal is a former Russian spy and lives with his daughter, Yulia. Rowley is in the same Salisbury District Hospital, where Sergei and Yulia Skripal spent months after being poisoned. Police suspect that the vial was contaminated in the first attack and carelessly discarded by the attackers. Skripal and his daughter have both recovered enough from the attack to have been released from the hospital.
Sergei Skripal is a Cold War era spy accused by the Russians of also spying for the British MI6 intelligence agency. Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found on a park bench in a catatonic state after being poisoned by Novichok. Agents found a large concentration of the poison on Skripal’s front doorstep; traces were also found at other locations in and around the home.
Sergei’s wife Liudmila died in 2012 from cancer, and his son Alexandr and his older brother died in St. Petersburg in 2017. Alexandr died of liver failure, a common reaction to Novichok. The U.K. has not arrested anyone in the Skripal case.
Novichok, Deadly Russian Nerve Agent
Novichok is an especially sinister and extremely toxic nerve agent. It was secretly developed by Russian chemists in the Soviet Union between the 1970s and 1990s during the Cold War era as a chemical warfare agent with the purpose of killing rapidly but silently.
No one today knows anything about the chemical, such as how long it stays active and can cause damage, yet a recent BBC article speculated that the chemical concoction could stay around for 50 years. Scientists do know that Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian, is not just a single chemical but rather a group of related chemicals designed to kill.
Novichok is designed to interfere with neuromuscular signaling; it disrupts the normal nerve communication between the muscles and the brain, working in minutes to cause seizures and paralyze the heart and respiration muscles, thereby stopping the heart and stopping breathing.
When an insufficient dose is given, as is likely the case with Rowley and Sturgess, death is often delayed and sometimes even prevented, although the victim continues to suffer from serious seizures, muscular issues and liver failure.
Not much is known about the nerve agent. Two Russian chemists have provided limited information. One chemist defected and provided what he knew. The other chemist accidentally poisoned himself with Novichok and had a delayed death. The notes regarding his case have been useful in solving the U.K. crimes.
While the chemical structures of Novichok are still unknown, scientists do know that it works similarly to other poisons like sarin, by binding to an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which is found in both muscles and nerves. The Novichok-acetylcholinesterase bond makes normal nerve and muscle function impossible, and death usually occurs within minutes when a substantial dose is given.
UK Blames Russia For Poisoning, Russia Denies Involvement
U.K. intelligence officials attribute the poison in their country to a rogue Russian intelligence agent who had a score to settle with ex-spy Skripal. Not only does Russian President Vladimir Putin deny the poisonings, but he also denies that the U.S.S.R. ever even developed the Novichok chemicals.
The U.K. has blamed Russia and even expelled several diplomats, however, Russia continues to deny the allegation. More recently, the New York Times reported that the Russian G.R.U. agency is possibly involved in the U.K. attacks.
The similarities regarding the G.R.U. do raise an eyebrow. Sergei Skripal was in the G.R.U., and the G.R.U. is also implicated for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In fact, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller just indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for election meddling — just days before President Trump’s historic Helsinki summit with Putin.
Thee defector chemists explained that the Soviets indeed developed the chemicals as part of the “Foliant” program, under the radar of the Chemical Weapons Convention the Soviets signed with the United States. The Washington Times denoted a classified Pentagon report that showed how Soviets continued to elude weapons inspectors.
The Soviet chemist says that the Novichok agents are the most potent chemical nerve agents ever made. To put it into perspective, Novichok can be ten times more potent than either sarin or VX, the chemical agent that killed Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in an airport.
Extremely low doses are very lethal, and Novichok can be used in either powder or liquid form.
Undetectable Nerve Agent has Britain on Edge
The British people nearby Amesbury and Salisbury are particularly nervous because the chemicals were specifically designed to be undetectable by the normal NATO chemical warfare detection methods. Even worse is that the chemical agents can get past NATO protective gear.
The public is up in arms, and the Salisbury District Hospital reports they have seen several people who have health concerns about being poisoned. None of the cases so far have been confirmed or have required treatment. Public Health England continues to tell citizens that the risk to the public is low.
Because Novichok is extremely difficult to detect, it is also extremely difficult to clean up. Unfortunately, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley found that out the hard way. Rowley is said to be once again eating solid food and regaining some strength.
U.K. law enforcement continues to comb the Amesbury/Salisbury area for possibly contaminated items. More than 100 officers have descended on the area, and the painstaking search may take months to complete.
Meanwhile, U.K. police have opened a murder investigation after Sturgess’ death. An autopsy for Sturgess is planned, and police say it could be months before they release her body to her family for burial. Officials say they are closing in on the suspects.