Forensic lab to conduct DNA tests by year end

Delon France

The Guyana Forensic Science Laboratory (GFSL) will be fully capable of conducting DNA testing by year end, thereby making the expansive costs associated with the Guyana Police Force (GPF) having to send samples overseas for analysis and the lengthy wait for the results distant memories.

This is according to the GFSL Director Delon France, who has informed that a modern piece of DNA testing equipment is being procured, and members of staff, inclusive of himself, have already begun to receive training in its use.

“It is currently being procured and I expect it to be in Guyana shortly,” he told Sunday Stabroek, before giving all assurances to the public that by year end testing will begin.

DNA testing will be added to the list of tests currently being done at the facility, which falls under the responsibility of the Minister of Public Security. Though commissioned in 2015, the lab only began taking in evidence samples from the police on March 1st, 2017.

It was only revealed following the commissioning that there was no provision for DNA testing, which attracted major concern, particularly since at that time government would have spent large sums of money sending samples to Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica. As in the case of the 2008 Lindo Creek massacre, the results of the samples which were sent to Jamaica were never received until years later.

Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan had told this newspaper last December that the lab will benefit from the investment of close to US$1 million in upgrades, which will enable it to conduct DNA testing.

Asked by Sunday Stabroek about the lab’s readiness to conduct this type of testing, France, while noting that this is “just another type of  test used in forensic science,” said that the lab will soon be in a position to conduct it.

He explained that previously, three rooms were required to execute the DNA analysis process, but now it has been narrowed down to a desktop instrument. “The only difference with the desktop instrument is that it will be able to test less samples, but given our population and our financial constraints… we needed to consider those things and determine whether it is feasible to have a traditional set up within the facility, or we go for the desk top,” he said, while noting that the traditional equipment could process 40 samples at once.

“The question[s] we needed to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we receive 40 pieces of DNA requests per day? Per month? Is it financially feasible to have the big traditional set up? Or, do you purchase a smaller equipment that can probably do eight at a time and less cost?’” he reasoned.

France explained that with the traditional method, the primer kits can run 40 samples at once, but if there are only five samples, it would mean that 35 will be wasted. “We cannot in our country afford such wastage, so we go for the smaller desktop instrument, which can process about eight…This is something that we can work with,” he said.

He said that the piece of equipment being referred to is currently being procured through the Citizens’ Security Strengthening Programme (CSSP), with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Asked about the availability of the staff required to use the equipment, he said that the facility has personnel trained in conducting DNA testing, and who by extension are knowledgeable with the operation of the piece of equipment being procured.

He singled out the Senior Science Officer Tamika Henry, who, he informed, underwent a postgraduate programme in DNA prior to the commencement of the collection of samples in 2017. He said that he had received training in this area many years ago while attached to the Health Ministry. France said that back then, the US government had procured a DNA instrument for the ministry, and he and three others were trained in its operation.

“So, I do have knowledge, and currently too I am doing a Master’s in Forensic Science, and two of the courses, one that I have completed….deals with DNA testing,” he said, while stressing that he would be able to go into the lab and perform DNA testing.

France’s academic qualifications, aside from the Master of Science Degree he is pursuing, includes a Bachelor of Science Degree in Medical Technology, an Associate of Science Degree in Chemical Pathology and a Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Laboratory Quality Management. He has 15 years of extensive laboratory experience, and a long list of professional qualifications, including the areas of phlebotomy, histopathology, hematology, serology and forensics.

Other Tests

France told Sunday Stabroek that the lab has the facilities to perform a number of tests that are all critical to the crime fighting apparatus.

He explained that when the lab was commissioned there were four technical departments – Chemistry, Toxicology, Trace evidence and Documents. In 2017, with the support of the Justice Education Society (JES) Project, a Forensic Video Evidence Department, was added.

Giving a breakdown of the work of each of the four departments, he said that in the Document Department, the laboratory personnel will look at forged currencies and forged documents, such as passport, ID cards; the Chemistry Department deals with all the illegal narcotic (drug) substances; Toxicology deals with suspected poison cases, while Trace evidence is involved in blood identification, body fluid identification and gunshot residue, and there is also equipment to compare bullets or spent shells, hair fibers and any other substances which can be compared.

With regards to forensic video evidence, he said that the lab works along with the police, who have the facility to conduct such testing themselves. He said that under the same project, equipment was set up in both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Divisions. However, he said, if there is a conflict of interest with the police with such evidence (a policemen might be involved), then the video or the digital video recorder is sent to the GFSL for testing. Additionally, the lab will support the police in situations where there is an excessive amount of video evidence for testing.

France assured that his staff, 90% of whom are internationally trained, are qualified to conduct the various tests and are knowledgeable with the operations of the required equipment. He explained that most of them were hired in 2013 and between that time and March 1st, 2017, when evidence receiving commenced, they were subjected to ongoing training, inclusive of online programmes in their areas of expertise, both locally and internationally. Among the international educational facilities utilised is the West Virginia University, while some staff were sent to England. He informed that three persons underwent an international certification program in 2016.

In addition to training, he said that between 2013 and 2017, focus was placed on achieving the international standard for accreditation.

Aside from the DNA testing instrument, France said that in keeping with his efforts to ensure there is backup equipment at the lab, a scanning electron microscope, which can do comparison of substances, as well as gunshot residue testing, and a Gas Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) instrument, which is used for drug and poison testing, will be procured this year.

 

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