THE coronavirus pandemic "started as an accident" and escaped from a Chinese lab, a former MI6 chief has said.
Sir Richard Dearlove says he's seen an "important" new report which claims the virus didn't emerge naturally.
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Instead, it was created by Chinese scientists, Sir Richard told The Telegraph.
And he claimed the report could force China to pay 'reparations' to the rest of the world for the death toll and economic hardship wrought by the virus.
International scientists believe the virus emerged in animals - most likely bats or pangolins - before jumping to the human population.
But Sir Richard says a scientific paper published this week by a Norwegian-British research team suggests key elements of Covid-19's genetic sequences were "inserted" and may not have evolved naturally.
He said: "I do not think that this started as an accident.
"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."
Sir Richard, who was the head of MI6 between 1999 and 2004, said he's read peer-reviewed research produced by top academics at St George's Hospital at the University of London and Norwegian virologists.
The paper claims that there are 'inserted sections' in the DNA of the virus, and warns that current efforts to develop are vaccine are doomed - because the virus has been misunderstood.
Sir Richard called the study a "very important contribution to a debate which is now starting" about how the virus evolved and then turned into a pandemic.
The paper has been rewritten several times, and an earlier version apparently claimed coronavirus could correctly be called the "Wuhan virus".
The earlier version, seen by The Telegraph, claimed to have proven "beyond all reasonable doubt that the Covid-19 virus is engineered."
One of the authors, John Fredrik Moxnes, asked for his name to be withdrawn from the research, throwing its credibility into doubt.
London academics have also dismissed its conclusions, it is understood.
But the remaining authors claims the virus has "unique fingerprints" that cannot have evolved naturally.
The paper has not yet been accepted for publication in any scientific journal.
The Chinese government has always insisted that the outbreak began in a "wet market" in the city of Wuhan late last year.
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Two laboratories in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses – the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control – have been suggested as the possible true sources of the outbreak.
Sir Richard suggested scientists may have been conducting secret gene-splicing experiments on bat coronaviruses when Covid-19 somehow escaped through a lapse in biosecurity.
"It's a risky business if you make a mistake," he said.
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