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A Week After Novichok Exposure, 2 Britons’ Lives Hang in the Balance

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LONDON — Two British citizens remained in critical condition on Saturday, breathing with the assistance of ventilators and surrounded by the world’s leading experts on Novichok poisoning, their odds of survival being closely tracked by Britain and Russia.

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The couple, Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, was exposed a week ago to traces of a Soviet-developed nerve agent. They likely came into contact with it by picking up a vial, syringe or ampul discarded by a would-be assassin who took to the city of Salisbury in southern England months ago to target a former Russian spy, police said.

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Both victims had been in treatment after years of substance abuse, which compromises the liver’s function as the body’s detoxifier. That makes them more physically fragile than the three previous poisoning victims in Salisbury: 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.

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If either of the two dies, it would present the British and Russian authorities with a new diplomatic scenario . Among the great surprises of the March attack on Mr. 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.

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The spines were weakening,” Mr. 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.”

Police said Friday 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

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.”

Scientific knowledge about Novichok poisoning was close to zero in March, when the Skripals and Sergeant 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.”

Mr. Rowley’s symptoms were observed more closely than those of Ms. Sturgess or of the Skripals because a friend, Sam Hobson, was with him at the time. Mr. 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

Ms. 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 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,” Ms. Sturgess wrote

Her posts brightened in February 2017 when she began her relationship with Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Rowley in Amesbury, said Ms. 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 Ms. Sturgess’s room at the shelter and then to Mr. Rowley’s apartment

Both residences became elaborate crime scenes on Friday, and investigators in protective suits have been seen entering. Mr. 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.”