A former head of MI6 has said he believes the coronavirus pandemic may have “started as an accident”, with the virus escaping from a Chinese laboratory.
Sir Richard Dearlove cited an “important” new study by British and Norwegian researchers that he thought would “shift the debate”, but it has not yet been accepted to a journal.
The researchers claim to have discovered clues suggesting key elements were “inserted” into the virus’s genetic sequence and may not have evolved naturally — a prospect contested by almost every other scientist studying the virus’s makeup.
An initial paper had been rejected by various journals and rewritten several times to remove accusatory claims about China before it was published in the Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery, according to The Telegraph. Initial co-author John Fredrik Moxnes, the chief scientific adviser to the Norwegian military, reportedly asked for his name to be removed
While the new paper is yet to find a publisher, The Telegraph reports that it claims the virus is “remarkably well-adapted virus for human co-existence” and is likely to be the result of a Wuhan lab experiment to produce “chimeric viruses of high potency”.
Amid attempts by Donald Trump to pile blame on China, repeatedly labelling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo claimed there was “enormous evidence” that the virus was man-made. He has since produced no such evidence.
His remarks came after the US National Intelligence Director’s office said it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified”, adding the intelligence community would continue to “rigorously examine” the possibility it had escaped from a laboratory.
In the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock said the government has seen “no evidence” to suggest the virus originated in a laboratory.
The scientific consensus has been that the virus originated in bats, with the genetic makeup of the virus indicating it most likely jumped to an intermediate animal before making the leap to humans.
The established theory is that the virus originated in a Wuhan wet market.
While recent analysis of the first 41 known coronavirus patients by The Lancet found 27 of them had a connection to the market, the first patient did not, many scientists still maintain the market is by far the most likely source.
Meanwhile, two laboratories — the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Wuhan Institute of Virology — both of which had looked at viruses in bats, have fuelled speculation that the virus may have originated there, for which there is currently no hard evidence.
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In the wake of the Sars epidemic, Chinese scientists have spent years searching remote caves and other far-flung locations novel coronaviruses in bats, to allow for greater preparedness in the event that one were to emerge.
However, Sir Richard, who was head of MI6 until 2004, suggested that scientists may have been carrying out gene-splicing experiments — although “absolutely” rejected conspiracy theories that this may have been for malevolent purposes.
No scientist studying Covid-19’s genetic makeup have found signs it was manipulated, except for those in the study he cites, co-authored by Professor Angus Dalgleish, of St George’s at the University of London.
“It’s a risky business if you make a mistake,” Sir Richard told The Telegraph. “Look at the stories ... of the attempts by the leadership to lock down any debate about the origins of the pandemic and the way that people have been arrested or silenced.”
He added: ”It raises the issue, if China ever were to admit responsibility, does it pay reparations? I think it will make every country in the world rethink how it treats its relationship with China and how the international community behaves towards the Chinese leadership.”
With countries such as the US seeking to politicise the virus, the Wuhan Instite of Virology vice director in April denounced the claims as a malicious “conspiracy theory” designed to “confuse” people.
“As people who carry out viral study, we clearly know what kind of research is going on in the institute and how the institute manages viruses and samples. As we said early on, there is no way this virus came from us,” Yuan Zhiming told state media.
“We have a strict regulatory regime and code of conduct of research, so we are confident,” added Mr Zhiming, a biotechnology expert who has trained and worked in France, Denmark and the US.
He told Reuters: “I hope everyone will put aside their prejudices and biases in order to provide a rational environment for research on tracing the origin of the virus.”