Novichok nerve agent that killed UK woman could remain active for 50 years

Investigators have revealed the extraordinary safety precautions that are being taken at sites linked to the nerve agent poisonings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 10:15pm

The nerve agent that killed a British woman could be active for 50 years if it remains in a container, Britain’s top counterterrorism officer has said.

Neil Basu told a packed public meeting in Amesbury that no forensic link had been established between the novichok that poisoned Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, and that which led to the collapse of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia – and it was possible a scientific link is never established.

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But Basu, an assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police who leads the police counterterrorism network, said it was implausible there was no connection between the two incidents.

He said it was possible the pair had picked up a container of novichok at the time of the Skripal attack in March but had only now opened it. He accepted there could even be several containers of novichok – but it was impossible to know.

Basu also said for the first time that a “particular” area of Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, rather than the whole park, was a focus. He said it would be several more weeks, if not months, before the investigation was over.

The assistant commissioner said he hoped Rowley, who had now regained consciousness in hospital, would be able to tell them where they had found the container and detectives were at the hospital waiting to speak to him.

Basu also gave more detail on the attack on the Skripals. “They had no idea they were being targeted,” he said. “They had no idea they had been contaminated.”

He reiterated that police believed the place where they had been poisoned was their front door.

Basu also said he did not believe there was much novichok in Salisbury – because the attackers would have been “foolish” to carry a large amount in. He said he did not believe Sturgess and Rowley were targeted.

“I think they are the unluckiest people ever,” he added.

He gave an extraordinary insight into the difficulty of searching for the novichok. He said that it took experts – all volunteers – 40 minutes to change into their protective suits and 40 minutes to “de-robe”. They were working in 40 degrees Celsius inside the two main properties that are under investigation and could only work for 15 minutes at a time. This meant they could only carry out one, two or three swabbings each session. Their blood was tested as they went in and as they left.

Paul Cosford, the medical director for Public Health England, specified that the novichok was in liquid form. He said it took effect between three and 12 hours after exposure, suggesting the couple could have come into contact with the nerve agent in the early hours of Saturday 30 June.

Asked how long the novichok could last, Cosford said: “If it was outside, exposed to the elements, it gets washed away and that’s safe. Anything left over from March just wouldn’t be there by now.

“If it’s in an enclosed container it takes a long time before it becomes inactive.”

Basu was asked what would happen if it was in a landfill site now. He said: “If it was sealed in a container in a landfill site it would effectively be safe because it would not be touched by anyone. It would last probably, I’ve been told by scientists, for 50 years.”

A member of the audience suggested that authorities had not been looking for the novichok until the latest incident. Basu replied: “I take your point and I know you are really concerned about it.”

He added: “We have not found the container. You are absolutely right that I have no idea what it looked like.”