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Search widens in England for source of deadly nerve agent 

iStock/Thinkstock(AMESBURY, England) -- Wider cordons have been set up around the town of Amesbury in Wiltshire, England, along with metal barriers protecting hazardous material tents, after a couple was believed to have been poisoned by a nerve agent last Saturday.

The man and the woman are both in critical condition and are receiving treatment at Salisbury District Hospital, where former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were treated after they were poisoned in March by a nerve agent in Salisbury.

British investigators believe the Amesbury pair have been infected by the same nerve agent, a Soviet-developed compound from a group of nerve agents called Novichok.

Police are searching several locations in Amesbury and Salisbury, which are about 9 miles apart, for where the pair may have come across nerve agents. Officials are working to determine whether they were exposed to a new batch of Novichok or whether they stumbled onto the same materials used to poison the Skripals.

A March assessment by the British government found that the Russian state was most likely responsible for the Skripals’ poisoning. The Kremlin has consistently denied the British accusations.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid on Thursday urged Russia to explain the latest incident in Wiltshire, saying the U.K. “will stand up to the actions that threaten our security.”

Vil Mirzayanov, a Soviet scientist who worked on the development of Novichok before defecting to the United States, said that if the Amesbury couple were infected by material left over from the Skripals incident, it is unlikely the agent was exposed to the elements because it retained enough potency to cause harm.

If the Novichok was from a previous batch, Mirzayanov said, it would've needed to been stored in a secure vial or container, which may have been picked up by the Amesbury couple and caused them to fall ill.

The agent is so potent that only a small amount would be needed to cause death, he said, adding that it could remain deadly after several years if stored in a secure environment.

Meanwhile, the search to determine the means and locations of the latest exposure has compelled police to close off additional locations around Wiltshire, including a pharmacy, a park, a church and several areas in Salisbury such as Queen Elizabeth Gardens and a homeless shelter.

News reports have identified the couple as Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, whose identities have not been released by authorities.

Police do not believe that the Amesbury pair were deliberately targeted, but are still investigating whether there is a link to the Salisbury poisoning.

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