Counterterrorism police in UK investigating poisoning by ‘unknown substance’

Counterterrorism police in UK investigating poisoning by ‘unknown substance’
Police officers are seen standing guard outside a local pharmacy in Amesbury, nine miles north of Salisbury, southern England, on July 4, 2018 where two people were found unconcious at a residence in Amesbury in circumstances that caused a major incident to be declared were believed to have visited. (GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)

A man and a woman in their 40s were found unconscious near a church in Amesbury, England. At first, police naturally suspected that the two had been the victims of a drug overdose. Then they realized that another, unknown substance was involved.

Does this sound familiar?

Police said that counterterrorism officials were involved in this case  “given the recent events in Salisbury,” a reference to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

On March 4, the Skripals were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, England, about a 20-minute drive from Amesbury. British investigators later determined that Sergei Skripal, a former Russian Army colonel who defected and sold secrets to MI6 before seeking refuge in England, had been targeted with the nerve agent Novichok.

Novichok had been developed by the Russian government during the Cold War. British Prime Minister Theresa May asked the Russian ambassador how their custom-made nerve agent ended up poisoning someone on British soil, but the Russians accused the British of staging the entire incident to make Russia look bad.

What do we know so far?

At this point in the investigation, authorities have not said whether they believe that this couple was poisoned with anything as deadly or unique as Novichok.

The Wiltshire Police department announced that it was trying to remain “open-minded” about what might have happened. Police say that they are not even sure at this point if a crime had been committed, but after the Salisbury incident they aren’t taking any chances.

The couple is currently being treated at Salisbury District Hospital — the same hospital that treated the Skripals. Tests are being carried out at a government-run chemical weapons laboratory, to determine what substance was involved. Places in Amesbury that the couple may have visited, including a park and a Boots pharmacy, were blocked off by police as a “precautionary measure.”

A government source told the BBC that “no definitive conclusions have yet been established.”

Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner Angus Macpherson called the response, including the hazmat suits worn by investigators, “fairly textbook” and stressed that “there’s no reason to think it’s connected with matters of last month” (although he said “last month,” Macpherson was likely still referencing the Salisbury incident).

Why were these people targeted?

So far, the British authorities have not said. With the Skripals, Sergei’s defection made the reason he was targeted obvious right from the start. This time, the answer seems less certain.

The couple had been to a family fun day event at Amesbury Baptist Church shortly before they were found unconscious at the church property.