ICMP and Partners in Vietnam Launch ODA Project Improving the Capability of Identification of Human Remains from War

Hanoi, 12 April 2024: The Institute of Biotechnology-Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (IBT-VAST), in coordination with the International Commissions on Missing Persons (ICMP), has launched an ODA project to improve Vietnam’s capacity to identify human remains from war. The two-year project is supported with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

ICMP will help IBT-VAST to develop advanced DNA extraction methods and Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology to extract DNA profiles from highly degraded bone samples in Vietnam. These methods will be supported by data analysis tools, with the goal of establishing an automated system to process a large number of samples. The project is part of the cooperation framework between the Governments of Vietnam and the United States to overcome the consequences of war, as specified in a Memorandum of Intention (MOI) signed by USAID and the Vietnam Agency for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) in July 2020.

“The meeting to launch the official implementation of the ODA project, demonstrates the efforts that have been made,” VAST Vice Chair Dr Chu Hoang Ha said today. “The project concretizes US Government initiatives and support for Vietnam, helping to develop successfully a new DNA technology solution for the issue of missing persons from war, in line with the DNA assessment requirements in Vietnam.”

Speaking at a meeting organized to launch the ODA project Dr Chu pointed out that in the past nearly one year of preparation of the ODA project, based on the implementation plan agreed between VAST and ICMP, scientists from ICMP and IBT have actively coordinated in the research and have achieved significant results, already demonstrating the potential for a successful project.

At today’s meeting, scientists from ICMP and IBT-VAST highlighted the fact that the collaborative work that has already been done by ICMP and IBT-VAST marks the first-time that nuclear DNA results from Vietnam bone samples have been obtained that are suitable for meaningful comparison to family members that would result in DNA matches.

In a pilot project that began in February 2023, ICMP and the IBT’s Center for DNA Identification (CDI) jointly selected 100 Vietnam samples, representing a broad range of sample quality, for developmental testing. ICMP conducted primary evaluation of five modern DNA extraction protocols, and two were chosen. CDI Staff visited the DNA laboratory at ICMP’s Headquarters in The Hague for multi-week training in DNA extraction methods, and ICMP provided the CDI with instruments to enable DNA extraction protocols and DNA quality assessment following ICMP protocols.

The project has demonstrated for the first time the ability to produce high-certainty nuclear DNA identifications in the Vietnam context, on a substantial percentage of samples. Of the 23 bone samples processed to date, 70 percent have generated a powerful nuclear DNA single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) profile that would result in identification if suitable family reference profiles are available.

NGS technology makes it possible to target thousands of genetic markers, which enables identification based on distant relationships. Conventional methods make it possible to test between 1,000 and 1600 SNPs. Using the new approach jointly developed by ICMP and the IBT, it is possible to test almost 5,500 SNPs.

Speaking at the meeting, ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said the work that has already been done by ICMP-IBT “is a major breakthrough in human identification technology. In practice it may make it possible to identify, for example, a great-great-grandparent by comparing highly degraded human remains with DNA samples provided by a great-great-grandchild.” She added that the application of the innovative DNA technologies that will be developed together with Vietnamese partners can help to account for large numbers of unidentified persons. “This knowledge transfer can also help Vietnam to become a leader in the field of advanced forensic genetics, which can have multiple applications.”

It is expected that the cooperation between ICMP and IBT-VAST will quickly produce results. This will help to achieve the Vietnamese Government’s goal of identifying more than 300,000 sets of human remains from war. This is among the efforts to mitigate the consequences of war, cited in the Joint Statement of the leaders of Vietnam and the US during the visit of US President Joe Biden to Vietnam in September 2023.

Kathryne Bomberger and senior staff from ICMP Headquarters are on a weeklong visit to Vietnam to meet with representatives from IBT-VAST, the VNOSMP, and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), as well as USAID, to discuss in detail ICMP’s plans to support IBT-VAST and other responsible agencies in Vietnam in the coming years.

About ICMP

ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so.