But now, the claim that the contagion originated in a Chinese laboratory has been lent oxygen, if not yet credence, by one of the most senior figures in Britain’s intelligence community.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, has said he believes the pandemic “started as an accident” after the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, where it had been engineered by scientists.
The eye opening claim will likely reignite a debate that has entwined geopolitics with virology, and which has at times sought to pin blame for the deadly contagion on Beijing.
The US president, Donald Trump, together with some of his most senior aides, claims to have seen evidence to substantiate the unproven theory that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, despite the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that the virus was “not man-made or genetically modified.”
Such hypotheses, already prominent on social media, will likely gain traction in light of Sir Richard’s remarks.
Britain and its allies in the Five Eyes Network have expressed misgivings that China has not been as transparent as it could have been about the initial spread, but none - save for Mr Trump and his vice president, Mike Pompeo - have gone so far as to say the virus was a man made creation.
Sir Richard’s claims will fuel that fire, as well as raising a slew of questions about why a near four decade veteran of the intelligence services would take such a view, and his evidence for doing so.
The startling comments were made by Sir Richard in an interview with Planet Normal, a podcast hosted by Daily Telegraph columnists, Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan.
In it, the 75-year-old, who helmed MI6 between 1999 and 2004, cited a new scientific paper which claims to have found that elements were “inserted” into Covid-19’s genetic sequence, which explains how the virus bound itself to human cells.
Sir RIchard stressed he did not believe the spread of the virus to be “deliberate,” pointing to the fact that China itself has “suffered hugely.”
But he said that research into viruses was “a risky business if you make a mistake,” and suggested the new paper was “very important” and would “shift the debate.”
That may well be the case, but at the moment, the paper has yet to be published, and the extent to which its research has been ratified is unclear.
Sir Richard claimed to have read it “many times in draft,” and said it had been rewritten “many times.” He added: “It’s been peer reviewed extensively, printed in a journal which is most prestigious.”
According to Sir Richard, its co-authors are “two very knowledgeable scientists” - Professor Angus Dalgleish, a consultant medical oncologist at St George’s, University of London, and Birger Sorenson, a Noregian virologist,
Records with Companies House show that both men are directors of Vulsana Limited. The nature of the business is described as “other human health activities.”
Mr Sorenson also runs Immunor AS, a Norweigan pharmaceutical company, while Prof Dalgleish, who stood - unsuccessfully - as a UKIP candidate in the 2015 General Election, is the director of several other companies. They include an entity called Corovax Ltd, incorporated on 12 March. The Brit also has stock options in Immunor AS.
It is understood the paper in question has been accepted for publication by a journal called the Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery.
According to Cambridge University Press, its board of editors include David Lilley, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Dundee. When asked if Prof Lilley supported the paper’s conclusions, a spokesman for the university said that he had “no direct role” with the journal and “has no knowledge of this issue.”
The spokesman added: “He is distantly connected with QRB Discovery, because he is on the editorial board of its parent journal QRB, but has no active involvement with the journal in question here.”
While an accepted manuscript of the paper is available on the website of Cambridge University Press, it is not clear if it is the final version, as it cites another author not mentioned by Sir Richard – Andres Susrud, a shareholder of Immunor AS.
According to the Telegraph, the initial paper was rejected in April by well-known journals such as Nature and the Journal of Virology, with its conclusions also dismissed by Imperial College London and the Francis Crick Institute.
It also claims that one of its authors, John Fredrik Moxnes, the chief scientific advisor to the Noewegian military, had asked for his name to be withdrawn from the research. The version on the Cambridge University Press site includes his contribution.
After being contacted by The Scotsman, a spokesman for the Science Media Centre, which seeks to provide accurate and evidence-based information about science in the press, said the response from experts was that there was “no merit” to Sir Richard’s claims about the paper.
Indeed, It remains the case that there is a near unanimous consensus among scientists around the world that the virus first emerged in animals before jumping to humans.
Many similar viruses are found in wild bats, and it seems likely that is the origin of this one, probably via an intermediate host.
It is not just elements of the scientific community which have taken issue with the theory.
Downing Street today poured cold water on Sir Richard’s claims, with a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating: “Both the health secretary and the chief medical officer’s office have spoken about this previously and have said that we have seen no evidence that the virus is man made.”
That, however, is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, it has been a story which has meshed politics and science. Sir Richard’s contribution to the discussion will not separate one from the other.
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