After Disasters, DNA Science Is Helpful, But Often Too Pricey
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Human DNA is the ultimate identifier. A single hair can contain enough information to figure out someone's identity. That's invaluable when identifying the unnamed casualties of natural disasters and war. But the technology for DNA forensics isn't always available in poor countries or warzones. Experts say what the world needs is an international DNA service. NPR's Christopher Joyce has a report on that idea.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: If you've got a body, or even just a tooth, you can get DNA from it. That can be used to determine the body's identity. But in some places, after the Rwandan genocide, for example, or after the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, DNA technology was not readily available. It's often too expensive and too complicated.
ALEX JOHN LONDON: Our concern was that there should be a mechanism in place that would allow access to DNA identification beyond just ability to pay.
JOYCE: Alex John London is a medical ethicist at Carnegie Mellon University. He says while there are numerous groups that do DNA identification worldwide, it's often ad hoc and erratic.
LONDON: Too often, if there isn't a funder out there, then people who are missing relatives won't get access to the technology.
JOYCE: It was the Indian Ocean tsunami that got forensic experts thinking. There were tens of thousands of unidentified bodies. DNA experts flocked to Thailand to set up labs. Tom Parsons, a DNA expert with the International Commission on Missing Persons, says Thailand got the attention because Western tourists died there. Their government sent teams to find their bodies. It didn't go well.
TOM PARSONS: So all the world's first rate forensic teams took off to Thailand, where white people were killed with no centralized plan, pushing and pulling. It was really a mess.
JOYCE: Different groups wouldn't share their technology and even disagreed on how to do the DNA analysis. Eventually, Interpol, the International Police organization, intervened. They sent Parsons' commission boxes of remains. The commission ended up identifying some 900 people, mostly Thais who might not have been identified otherwise. So what forensic experts think might be better is a permanent organization with DNA chops, money and an international mandate to respond to disasters, similar to the way international inspectors monitor things like nuclear and chemical facilities.
And an independent group might also be better at keeping DNA data private. Carnegie Mellon's Alex John London says, when you start digging into a family's genetic history, it can produce ugly surprises.
LONDON: I give DNA, my son gives DNA. We're trying to identify a missing relative. It can be ascertained that he's genetically not my son.
JOYCE: But a global DNA response team needs a reality check, especially in warzones. So says Stefan Schmidt, DNA expert for the organization Physicians for Human Rights. The group has done DNA identifications in Bosnia, Guatemala and Afghanistan. Governments are not always ready to show where the bodies are buried.
STEFAN SCHMIDT: There is this false sense that DNA can aid in quickly identifying and repatriating remains. The truth of it, though, is that, you know, these efforts take decades.
JOYCE: DNA teams are still working on bodies from wars 25 years ago. Meanwhile, new ones are producing yet more unnamed victims - Libya and Syria, for example. Schmidt notes that in Syria, any international DNA organization would still have to work under the nose and with the permission of whoever wins. And winners tend to write history.
SCHMIDT: Are you only interested in telling the truth about those revolutionaries that died and you have no interest in trying to tell the truth to family members of soldiers who fought on the government side?
JOYCE: Writing in the journal Science, Alex John London acknowledges that a global DNA identification organization would face political obstacles, especially from governments at war with their own citizens. But hopefully, it would no longer be a luxury. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.