By Lejla Softic
Two groups of three research scientists from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) successfully completed a three-week training program at ICMP’s facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in April.
The Hanoi Government estimates that more than 1.1 million North Vietnamese Army personnel and Viet Cong (pro-communist South Vietnamese irregulars) were killed or went missing in the 30 years of fighting before 1975. Around 300,000 are still missing. In addition, between 50,000 and 65,000 North Vietnamese civilians and between 195,000 and 430,000 South Vietnamese civilians died as a result of the conflict.
Although the United States has repatriated and identified most of its war dead, Vietnam has so far identified just a few hundred people, using outdated forensic techniques. Yet thousands of families are desperate to locate the remains of missing relatives.
The six Vietnamese scientists who have been trained at ICMP are part of “Project 150”, which was initiated in 2014 by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and which involves the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security (DNA Identification Center), Ministry of National Defence (Military Institute of Forensic Medicine), and Prime Minister’s Office (“VAST“ DNA Identification Center).
The “world’s largest systematic identification project“ will use smart DNA-testing technology to identify the missing from the Vietnam War. Training programs for scientists from VAST began in February 2016 at BioGlobe in Germany.
As part of the three-month training program, ICMP delivered hands-on technical training with a focus on post-mortem sample preparation, washing and grinding, and DNA extraction.
“The goal of the project is to identify about 80,000 bone samples by 2020. So far the project has run slowly and now we want to accelerate it,” said scientist Nguyen Thai Minh Huyen from the VAST DNA Identification Center. “The focus of the training at ICMP is on how to work with bone samples, which is very useful for us, because the bone samples we work with are very old and in poor condition due to temperature and humidity in Vietnam.”
Ms Nguyen also noted that the project will need reference DNA from close family members to compare with the bone samples from victims. An outreach program is envisaged to call on relatives of the missing to donate blood samples to create a reference database. However, this will be complicated by the fact that many war victims may have died too young to have had children, and their parents may also be dead, so reference samples will have to come from more distant relatives whose DNA is less similar, she said.
The Vietnamese scientists observed workflow at ICMP’s laboratories and were briefed on the Identification Data Management System (iDMS), a dedicated software program developed by ICMP to enable large numbers of DNA samples from human remains to be matched with DNA from blood samples supplied by families of the missing. Among other things, they were also briefed on DNA profile designation and interpretation, database search capacity, DNA matching and DNA statistical calculation using DNA View Software, and ICMP’s Quality Management System and DNA Validation Program.
The visit of the Vietnamese scientists is a part of ICMP’s effort to help Vietnam build the capacity of institutions and professionals dealing with the issue of missing persons.