British police declared a “major incident” early Wednesday after a man and woman in their 40s were believed to have been exposed to an “unknown substance” near the historic town of Salisbury in south England.
Counterterrorism investigators from the Metropolitan Police have been dispatched to assist.
Authorities said the two – identified by friends as British nationals Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44 – were found unconscious over the weekend at a residential property in Amesbury. They are in critical condition in the same Salisbury hospital where the former Russian spy and double agent Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, were treated after being poisoned by the Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok four months ago.
After a lengthy treatment, the Skripals were released from the hospital and continue to recover in an undisclosed location, protected by British authorities. Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Russia for the nerve agent assault against the Skripals.
It is unclear whether there is any connection between the Skripal attack and the current incident. Police said tests were ongoing to discover what sickened the two people in the latest case of a suspected poisoning.
“It was initially believed that the two patients fell ill after using possibly heroin or crack cocaine from a contaminated batch of drugs,” Wiltshire police said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. They added that they were keeping “an open mind” to see where the evidence leads them.
British newspapers reported that samples were taken to the nearby U.K. military research center at Porton Down, the same facility that helped identify the nerve agent in the Skripal case.
Sam Hobson, 29, a friend of Rowley and Sturgess, told the Daily Telegraph that the day before they fell ill, the three of them were in Salisbury visiting a number of sites in the town’s center, not far from where the Skripals were found.
A spokesman for the prime minister said the incident “is being treated with the utmost seriousness.”
A special national security committee met on the matter Wednesday morning.
“Based upon the number of casualties affected, it is not believed that there is a significant health risk to the wider public,” said the Wiltshire Police, adding that it was not yet known whether the two were the victims of a crime.
Amesbury is about eight miles north of Salisbury. Police cordoned off several sites in both Amesbury and Salisbury where they suspected the couple visited, including a church, pharmacy and a park.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam