Novichok poisoning patient no longer critical as police say no guarantees Britain is rid of nerve agent

An undated picture taken from the facebook page of Charlie Rowley on July 9, 2018.
An undated picture taken from the facebook page of Charlie Rowley on July 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP/FACEBOOK PAGE OF CHARLES ROWLEY

LONDON (AFP, REUTERS) - A British man exposed to the nerve agent Novichok is no longer in a critical condition, the hospital treating him said on Wednesday (July 11), as police still struggle to understand what happened.

The brother of 45-year-old Charlie Rowley also said he had visited him and he was talking, but looked “like a skeleton” and could barely lift his head.

Rowley fell ill on June 30 at his home in Amesbury near the town of Salisbury in southwest England, along with his partner Dawn Sturgess, 44. She died on Sunday.

They were exposed to Novichok, the same nerve agent used against former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in March.

Britain and its allies accused Moscow of trying to kill the Russian pair, who survived, sparking an international diplomatic crisis.

Police have said they cannot guarantee there are no more traces of the agent in Britain.

Rowley was in a coma and regained consciousness earlier this week, and the hospital said his condition had improved overnight.

He had moved from critical to a “serious, but stable” condition, said Lorna Wilkinson, director of nursing at Salisbury hospital.

“Charlie still has some way to go to recover, but the progress we’ve seen so far gives us cause for optimism,” she said in a statement.

Police said they had spoken briefly to Rowley and hoped to speak to him again, as they seek to establish how the couple were contaminated.

A link to the Russian attack is the main line of inquiry, but no arrests have been made in either case.

'LOOKS LIKE A SKELETON'

Rowley’s brother Matthew told ITV News it was “shocking to see him first of all, because he’s not the Charles I know”.

“He is awake. He is talking, making sense but he’s like a skeleton at the moment,” he said.

“He is eating solid foods whereas he was on liquids for nine days so he’s lost weight.

“He couldn’t really pick his head off the pillow but we managed to have a laugh together about the nurses and getting their phone numbers and things.”

Sam Hobson, a friend of the couple, told AFP he had visited Salisbury with them the day before they fell ill. He described how Rowley “was sweating loads, dribbling, and you couldn’t speak to him. It’s like he was in another world, hallucinating”.

Police initially thought Rowley and Sturgess had consumed a contaminated batch of illegal drugs but their symptoms prompted further testing which confirmed Novichok poisoning.

Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Police now believe the pair handled a contaminated item with a high dose of the nerve agent, although they have not been able to confirm whether it was from the same batch used against the Skripals.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies on Tuesday warned residents of Salisbury and Amesbury that they should not “pick up any foreign object which could contain liquid or gel, in the interests of their own safety”.

“This, in practice, means do not pick up containers, syringes, needles, cosmetics or similar objects, made of materials such as metal, plastic or glass,” she said.

Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer said it might never be possible to definitively establish a link between the death of Sturgess and the poisoning of the Skripals.  He also said police could not guarantee there were no more traces of Novichok still in England. 

“I would love to be able to stand here and say how we have identified and caught those responsible and how we are absolutely certain there are no traces of nerve agent left anywhere in the county,” Basu said.

“The brutal reality, however, is that I cannot offer you any such assurances or guarantees at this time.”