2 Americans treated for poisoning in Moscow
By C.J. Chivers Published: March 6, 2007

MOSCOW: An American doctor and her daughter were being treated in a Moscow hospital Tuesday after being poisoned late last month with thallium, a highly toxic metal with a history of use in both pesticides and murder, Russian officials said.

Both of the women, who had emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1980s but recently returned for a vacation, had been severely sickened but their lives were not in danger, medical officials here said.

"They have positive dynamics and their condition is improving," Viktor Kaznacheyev, chief doctor at the Sklifosovsky clinic, said in a telephone interview. The two women had been treated at the clinic since falling ill Feb. 24.

Kaznacheyev said the victims, Dr. Marina Kovalevsky, 49, and her daughter, Yana, 26, were under the supervision of poison specialists. "They were in a serious condition when they were delivered here," he added.

Citing privacy concerns, he declined to discuss further details, beyond saying that their symptoms were consistent with thallium poisoning.

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Kovalevsky, who has also used the surname Kovalevskaya, is an internal medicine specialist in private practice in California, and has had admitting privileges at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles since 1999, a spokeswoman for the hospital said. She was educated in the 1970s in Kemerovo, an industrial and coal-mining region in southern Siberia.

She had returned to Russia for a vacation beginning on Feb. 14 and was due back at her office to see patients on Feb. 26, Dr. Arkady Stern, a colleague covering for her at her practice, said by telephone.

The circumstances of the poisonings were unclear, but it appeared that Kovalevsky and her daughter had ingested the poison while in Moscow. "She left Los Angeles in perfectly good health," Stern said.

The mystery of the poisonings, following the fatal poisoning in London last year of Alexander Litvinenko, a former security agent and strident critic of the Kremlin, attracted immediate attention and speculation in the Russian news media.

Litvinenko had been initially diagnosed with thallium poisoning. Doctors later determined he had ingested a radioactive isotope of polonium. Before dying, he publicly accused President Vladimir Putin of having a hand in the poisoning. The killing remains unsolved.

Thallium, a metal with no taste or odor, has been used as an ingredient in insecticide and rat poison, and as well by criminals and intelligence services, including those of the Soviet Union and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

When ingested, it is a slow-acting poison that can cause excruciating abdominal pain, breathing difficulties, damage to the nervous system and extensive hair loss.

Stern said that the two women had been administered Prussian blue, a pigment commonly used to counteract the effects of thallium, and had also undergone dialysis to help rid their systems of lingering toxins.

He said the women had been cleared to travel from Moscow, and hoped that they might return to the United States before the end of the week.