AILSA CHANG, HOST:
British police say the deadly nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy in England back in March has now made two more people gravely ill. The couple suddenly fell sick Saturday in Amesbury, England, just 7 miles from where the ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned. The Skripals eventually recovered. Authorities say they don't know how this couple came into contact with the poison. We're joined now by Alice Fordham, who's been covering the story from London.
ALICE FORDHAM: Good evening, Ailsa.
CHANG: What exactly did British officials announce today?
FORDHAM: Well, the latest in a series of announcements today came from the U.K.'s most senior counterterrorism police officer. After analysis in laboratories, he said that two people in or around the town of Salisbury have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok. So this is a few months after the defected Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as you mentioned, were also poisoned by the same agent and nearly died in the same area. And British and international investigators identified that substance earlier in the year as Novichok. And it's the same one that's been used now, a substance that affects the functioning of the nerves, and it can be fatal.
CHANG: And Novichok - that seems to be the focus here in both of these cases. Can you tell us a little more about this substance?
FORDHAM: Well, just to give you a little bit of context, this little cathedral town of Salisbury became the center of, really, an international standoff between Russia and the West earlier in the year after it was established that Novichok had been used there. So after investigations by international experts and by the United Nations, Britain accused Russia of conducting a targeted attack on its agents that had defected and had worked for the United Kingdom and that Russia had conducted attack with a chemical agent, a highly toxic substance, on British soil. Now, the understanding was that Novichok is a substance that only Russia was likely to produce. And Ailsa, this resulted in an unprecedented response, really. Dozens of Russian diplomats were expelled from the U.K., and from the U.S. and from European countries, although Russia...
CHANG: I remember that, yeah.
FORDHAM: Yeah - denied any involvement in this.
CHANG: So is there any sense of how this couple, these two British citizens, came into contact with Novichok?
FORDHAM: So this is kind of the center of the mystery right now because, no, not really. Both of them have been identified as a man and a woman in their 40s, both British people, both from the local area. There's no reason particularly to imagine they have any contact with Russia. And they fell ill on Saturday, and the police at the time in the area actually released a statement saying they thought these two people had taken some contaminated illegal recreational drugs. But after they'd been in the hospital a few days, the police decided to investigate further. And as we've heard now, they've had the results back, and indeed, it does seem this couple were in contact with the substance, but we don't know why.
CHANG: And how are people in Britain reacting to today's developments?
FORDHAM: So the most immediate effect is that areas in Salisbury and in the little town of Amesbury nearby have been cordoned off to the public. The mayor for the area of Amesbury has told media that people are really scared, including children. When the poison attack happened earlier this year, this little cathedral town of Salisbury was very surprised and unsettled to find itself in the middle of an international incident, and it's very worrying to see this possibly happening again.
CHANG: That's Alice Fordham in London. Thank you, Alice.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.