Bad DNA samples hinder indentification of tsunami dead

(AFP) The identification of people killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster last December has been slowed by the poor condition of DNA samples sent to labs around the world for analysis, a Swedish scientist said on Tuesday.

“The test samples are in bad shape… They are simply degraded DNA,” said Gunilla Holmlund, head of the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Linköping in southern Sweden that is currently analyzing a large batch of DNA samples from victims of the December 26 catastrophe.

The Linköping lab has accepted 600 DNA samples and is attempting to use them to create victim DNA profiles that can be sent back to Thailand, where the samples were taken, to assist in the identification work there.

“I guess it was not possible to conserve the samples properly on site considering the conditions there,” Holmlund told AFP.

Ideally, DNA samples should be taken immediately from a fresh corpse and frozen to preserve the quality.

“Of the first 18 samples we tested last week, we could only make three profiles on the first try. But we have run the samples again, and the result is better,” she said, adding that it remained unclear how many of the total 600 samples would be usable.

“It will take at least six months or more to run all the samples. It’s impossible to know how many will turn out,” she said.

More than 217,000 people were killed when a massive earthquake followed by towering tsunamis bore down on shoreline areas of 11 countries in Asia and Africa rimming the Indian Ocean.

Five hundred and forty-four Swedes were killed or remain missing after the tragedy, making the Scandinavian country, with its nine million inhabitants, one of the nations outside of Asia with the highest per capita death toll.

Last week, Swedish police announced that 393 Swedes had been positively identified, and on Monday Holmlund said the number had risen to over 400.

“None of them have been identified via DNA though,” she said.

“All the Swedes were identified through dental records, fingerprints or other means… I have no idea who the DNA samples here are from or what (the victims’) nationality was,” Holmlund said.