CEO SUMMARY: DNA testing will be a primary tool in identifying victims of this major disaster. Officials in New York City are formulating a plan whereby private labs will do DNA testing in conjunction with New York State Police laboratories. Laboratory Corporation of America has been designated as a public collection site where victim’s family members can go to provide DNA samples to help in the identification process.
TO IDENTIFY the more than 5,000 people missing as a result of coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, authorities will heavily rely on DNA testing.
This is the first sizeable disaster in American history where DNA testing will play a primary role in helping to identify victims’ remains. The magnitude of the tragedy has no parallel in recent times and DNA testing is still a relatively new tool. For those reasons, government officials in New York are still developing specific plans for this DNA testing effort.
Private Labs To Do Tests
However, the broad outlines of the DNA testing program are beginning to emerge. It appears that primary DNA testing will be done by Myriad Genetics, Inc. and Celera Genomics, Inc., based in Salt Lake City, Utah and Gaithersburg, Maryland, respectively. New York State Police laboratories will have the responsibility of double-checking results.
Laboratory Corporation of America was designated to be an official site for the collection of DNA samples from family members of victims. Official announcements were issued last week directing family members to contact LabCorp and arrange to pro- vide a DNA specimen.
LabCorp came into the picture because it has a unique resource. “We already offer identity and paternity testing,” stated Pam Sherry, LabCorp’s Senior Vice President of Investor and Public Relations. “In recent years, we’ve been developing our capabilities for this kind of testing.
“To support our nationwide program of identity and paternity testing, LabCorp operates over 900 locations around the United States where staff has been trained to collect these types of specimens,” explained Sherry. “Because family members of victims are located throughout the country, New York City needed a national col- lection network to support this effort.”
On the Saturday following the terrorist attacks, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, held a news conference and stated that he expected DNA analysis would be the most effective way of identifying many of the victims.
Utilize Special Software
The Medical Examiner’s office will utilize special software provided by the FBI to manage the different types of data on individual victims. Current plans call for every recovered body part to be analyzed.
Dr. Robert Shaler, Director of the forensic biology lab in the Medical Examiner’s office, estimates that the number of DNA tests required could range from 50,000 to as many as one million. A limited number of DNA tests have been done so far, but 80% of the samples generated profiles that would be useful in identification.
Hairbrushes and Razors
There’s been extensive media coverage about how families of victims have been submitting hairbrushes, toothbrushes, even razor blade cartridges that might possibly contain samples of their loved one’s DNA. Where no sample of the victim’s DNA can be located, authorities will use the DNA from family members to help make the identification.
The decision by New York authorities to extensively employ DNA testing as a primary means of victim identification shows how far the technology has evolved in recent years. Improvements in testing procedures mean that DNA can be recovered and typed from specimens of poorer quality. As well, the speed of the testing and its total costs have now made it feasible to use it in these types of disasters.
In coming years, DNA identity testing may well continue to evolve and become a mainstream service offered by increasing numbers of clinical laboratories.
LabCorp Acts Swiftly To Move Specimens
LIKE OTHER LABORATORIES around the nation, in the aftermath of the coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11, it was emergency management for Laboratory Corporation of America.
“Our first priority was to confirm the safety and well-being of our people,” stated Pam Sherry, Senior Vice President of Investor and Public Relations at LabCorp. “Fortunately, all our people were okay and all our facilities continued to function. We did shut down our patient service center in lower Manhattan after police closed that area to public access.
“The main effort was to locate specimen shipments and institute contingency plans to deal with the disruption in the nation’s transportation system,” she explained. “We used LabCorp’s fleet of 3,600 vehicles to revise courier routes and we created point-to-point relays.”
Air transport was an issue that was resolved in cooperation with government authorities. “We have our own airplanes. We used those planes, in combination with charters, to provide specimen transport services,” noted Sherry. “We qualified for a medically necessary exception and flew where needed.
“This was a major effort,” added Sherry. “In the first days following the attacks, the situation was changing minute-by-minute. LabCorp’s people really wanted to stand up and be counted and they went to remarkable lengths to maintain testing services for our customers.
“Among other things, I know that LabCorp contacted many hospitals and other laboratories in different parts of the country to offer interim services,” she said. “Like the entire nation, we recognized that it was no longer ‘business as usual.’ Everyone wanted to respond to the crises and demonstrate that our profession could rise to this challenge and support patient care.”