A former MI6 chief has said he believes the origins of the coronavirus pandemic can be traced to the virus accidentally escaping from a Chinese laboratory.

Speaking on The Daily Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast, Sir Richard Dearlove, who spent 38 years with Britain’s intelligence service, said he had seen a new scientific report that suggested the virus was engineered by Chinese scientists.

Experts widely agree that the virus originated in animals before being transmitted to humans.

Professor David Robertson from the University of Glasgow told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last month that there was “really no evidence” of the virus being man-made.

“I don’t think we’re clever enough to have designed this virus – it’s far too unique,” he said.

“There is really no evidence for this. We can all enjoy a conspiracy theory but you need to have evidence.”

However Sir Richard said a scientific paper published this week by a Norwegian-British research team suggested key elements in the genetic sequence of the virus were “inserted” and may not have evolved naturally.

The Daily Telegraph reported that in the study, produced by Professor Angus Dalgleish of St George’s Hospital at the University of London and Norwegian virologist Birger Sorensen, the scientists claim to have found “inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike surface” which could explain how the virus binds with human cells.

In the podcast, Sir Richard suggested scientists may have been experimenting on bat coronaviruses when Covid-19 escaped.

He also raised the prospect of China potentially paying for the global damage caused by the pandemic.

“I do think that this started as an accident,” Sir Richard said.

“(The study is) a very important contribution to a debate which is now starting about how the virus evolved and how it got out and broke out as a pandemic.

“It raises the issue, if China ever were to admit responsibility, does it pay reparations?”

The Daily Telegraph reported the peer-reviewed paper has been re-written several times as some scientists dismissed its original conclusions.

An earlier version of the study, seen by the paper, claimed to prove “beyond reasonable doubt that the Covid-19 virus is engineered”.

Further analysis of the research, due to be released in the coming days, reportedly claims the Covid-19 virus has “unique fingerprints” that indicate “purposive manipulation” by humans.

“As this debate about the virus develops, I think all this material is going to be in print and is going to embarrass a number of people,” Sir Richard said.

The paper also reportedly warned that current vaccine efforts are doomed because the cause of the virus has been misunderstood.

The researchers are attempting to solve this issue by developing their own vaccine, according to the paper.