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A Week After Nerve-Agent Exposure, 2 Britons’ Lives Are Hanging In Balance

LONDON — As they lie in intensive care, breathing with the assistance of ventilators and surrounded by the world’s leading experts on Novichok poisoning, two obscure British citizens, who lived on the margins in their tranquil community, may have an impact in relations between global powers.

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Ellen Barry
, New York Times

LONDON — As they lie in intensive care, breathing with the assistance of ventilators and surrounded by the world’s leading experts on Novichok poisoning, two obscure British citizens, who lived on the margins in their tranquil community, may have an impact in relations between global powers.

The couple, Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, were exposed a week ago to traces of a Soviet-developed nerve agent, most likely, analysts say, by picking up a phial or ampul discarded by a would-be assassin who took to Salisbury, southern England, months ago to target a Russian former spy.

A police statement on Friday said that the couple remained in critical condition and that officials were “working to support their next of kin.”

Toxicologists say that the first days after a poisoning are a crucial threshold for survival, as the body struggles to resynthesize an enzyme, acetylcholinesterase, which is inhibited by nerve agents. Novichok is believed to directly affect the brain’s respiratory centers, and considerable time may pass before a patient can breathe on his or her own.

Sturgess and Rowley were both in treatment after years of substance abuse, an ordeal that compromises the liver’s function as the body’s detoxifier, making them more physically fragile than the three previous victims: the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal; his daughter, Yulia Skripal; and a British police officer who took sick after responding to the poisoning in Salisbury.

The recently poisoned couple were being treated at the same hospital that cared for the Skripals.

The hospital, in Salisbury, “has the most expertise in the world in dealing with people with this type of poisoning, but it very much depends on the state of the individual,” said Alastair Hay, an emeritus professor of toxicology at the University of Leeds, England. “The fact that someone is frailer makes it more difficult, makes the outlook a little more bleak.”

He said the couple’s prospects for survival were “much more problematic, I think, given their overall state.”

If either of the two dies, on a diplomatic level it would present British and Russian authorities with a new scenario. Among the great surprises of the March attack on Skripal and his daughter is that they did not die, most likely because they received a relatively small dosage. The police officer, Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey, also got better.

Their recoveries meant the attack fell off the front pages, allowing investigators to proceed with a slow, methodical search for evidence that might support their leading theory — that Russian agents were behind the attack. The emergence of additional victims “will give it a renewed sense of urgency,” particularly if one of them succumbs, said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a research group in London.

“The spines were weakening,” Nixey said of the British authorities, "and if there are new crimes or misdemeanors on the part of the Russian state, then it means that those spines can be restiffened.” If either victim dies, he added, “it becomes a murder investigation, and it’s involving a British national rather than a Russian national.”

Scientific knowledge about Novichok poisoning was close to zero in March, when the Skripals and Bailey fell ill, and medical staff members expected them to die, they told the BBC in May. A paper published in May in the scientific journal Clinical Toxicology noted that while a large dose of a nerve agent could kill a patient within minutes, “mild or moderately exposed individuals usually recover completely.” Rowley’s symptoms were observed more closely than those of Sturgess or of the Skripals, because a friend, Sam Hobson, was with him at the time. Hobson described symptoms that progressed over a period of hours, beginning with profuse sweating and fever, then hallucination and dribbling.

Each of the two recent victims had long histories of addiction. Sturgess referred to her troubles with drinking in wry Facebook posts, writing in 2016 that, after one spree, she was not sure how she had reached her room at John Baker House, a supported-living facility in Salisbury that houses many people with drug and alcohol problems. She thanked her mother for feeding her when she was sick.

“Love her, she knows how to mend me when I’m lost and low,” Sturgess wrote.

Her posts brightened in February of 2017, when she began her relationship with Rowley, a recovering heroin addict who rented an apartment in Amesbury, eight miles away. “Fell in love ... never bodes well for me,” she wrote. “I trust Charlie with my life and he gets me the best gifts ever.”

Peter Cook, 58, who lived in the same shelter as Sturgess, spoke fondly of her, saying she propped her door open with a sock so that friends could visit at any time. He said she had a loving relationship with Rowley, and there was talk they might move in together. “He had a nice flat; he was getting it together,” he said.

But Becca Stewart, 20, who lived next door to Rowley in Amesbury, said Sturgess had become painfully thin, and that she sometimes saw her walking in the neighborhood “stumbling all over the place.”

The police on Friday released a detailed timeline of the couple’s movements on June 30 and July 1, leading up to their hospitalization. They may have picked up the contaminated object in Queen Elizabeth Gardens, where they relaxed that afternoon before returning to Sturgess’ room at the shelter and then to Rowley’s apartment.

Both residences became elaborate crime scenes on Friday, and investigators in protective suits have been seen entering. Rowley’s brother, Matthew, said he had learned of the poisoning from a friend who heard it on the news.

“He’s my younger brother. I loved him to bits. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him, and yet it has,” Matthew Rowley told the BBC. “How would you deal with it? It’s heartbreaking, really is.”

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