Any evidence of a lab leak that may have caused the Covid-19 pandemic would likely have been destroyed by Chinese officials by now, a former MI6 chief has claimed.

Sir Richard Dearlove said it would now be difficult to prove that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working on “gain of function” experiments to make a novel coronavirus.

“We don’t know that’s what’s happened – but a lot of data have probably been destroyed or made to disappear so it’s going to be difficult to prove definitely the case for a ‘gain of function chimera’ being the cause of the pandemic,” he said.

The scientific community remains divided over how plausible it is that the virus began with a research lab leak, but president Joe Biden’s call for more US investigations into the origins of Covid-19 has rekindled interest in the theory.

Sir Richard told The Daily Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast that he felt some vindication now that more people were beginning to take seriously his own repeated questioning of the virus’ origin.

The former intelligence chief, head of the UK’s spy agency between 1999 and 2004, has previously said the novel coronavirus is “far more likely” to have come from a lab than an animal.

Sir Richard told the podcast it was possible Chinese scientists who wanted to speak out about experiments had been “silenced”.

“The People’s Republic of China is a pretty terrifying regime and does some things we consider unacceptable and extreme in silencing opposition to the official line of the government,” he said.

Sir Richard also said western countries had been naive in trusting China – claiming the country had infiltrated scientific institutions and journals in the UK and elsewhere.

He spoke of the “extraordinary behaviour” in the scientific community, which had shut down any debate, something he said verged on “academic bullying”.

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Sir Richard Dearlove

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Sir Richard Dearlove

(PA)

The former intelligence chief also said China had originally been “let off the hook” in regard to questions about the virus’s origins, due to scepticism over Donald Trump and his administration, which had led such enquiries initially.

But after the Biden administration’s request for more US intelligence investigations, and as British intelligence assists in probing a possible lab leak, Sir Richard claimed the “whole argument” had now shifted.

While some scientists have called for further investigation into the origins of the virus, many remain sceptical of the lab leak theory.

Robert F Garry – a virologist at Tulane University who analysed the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus – has told The Independent he doubts that the pandemic could have emerged from a laboratory.

He said it was “extremely unlikely” the pandemic came from a lab leak, adding: “There are numerous hypotheses that fall under lab leak – they vary from not credible at all to barely credible.”

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An aerial shot of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

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An aerial shot of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

(AFP via Getty Images)

Sir Richard also castigated British political leaders, including former prime minister David Cameron, for “sheer naivety” in placing too much trust in China.

“Some of the things that were said by George Osborne and David Cameron about our relationship with China – how we were going to have this privileged position – I was staggered at the time by the sheer naivety.”

Sir Richard also said the World Health Organisation (WHO) was “a lost cause” and should not be left by itself to look rigorously into the origins of the virus to provide “a clear understanding of what the hell happened”.

A team of experts from WHO and China said in February that the virus was “extremely unlikely” to have entered the population through a laboratory-related incident, and was instead probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal.

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