Scientists gear up after DNA go-ahead

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2000, 12:00am

Forensic scientists are to set up a new team for DNA profiling in anticipation of a sharp increase in workload, following the approval of laws establishing Hong Kong's first DNA database.

Under the new law, police can take DNA samples from anyone suspected or convicted of serious arrestable offences - crimes with a jail term of not less than seven years. Suspects not convicted will have their samples destroyed.

The Government's forensic science division has two DNA profiling sections, but division senior scientist Wong Dart-man said a third section with nine additional biochemists would be set up.

He and 17 other biochemists at government laboratories are bracing for a substantial increase in the number of sampling cases. 'With the database, we will be able to aid in the identification of perpetrators of crimes more quickly and more easily - DNA is a very powerful tool,' Mr Wong said. 'There's a lot of work to be done before the bill can be implemented, and the caseload is increasing continually.' His team will soon be moving into bigger premises.

Mr Wong's caseload is high, about 700 each year, and in 1998, the biochemical science group had a backlog of 358 unprocessed tests.

To prepare for the caseload increase, automatic testing machines were bought for the 1998-99 financial year for $1.1 million. The machines can process 48 samples daily, and the chances of them giving a false match is one in 50 billion. An arm of the Security Bureau, the division's total budget is $90 million.

DNA data from the machines is fed into a Macintosh computer system running DNA indexing software developed by the FBI in the United States. The Hong Kong database will be similar to those already in place in the US, Britain and Australia.

Those DNA catalogues had yielded multiple arrests, Mr Wong said. He estimated the full database team would be in place by next year at the earliest.

Mr Wong has been involved with DNA testing since its inception in Hong Kong in 1990. DNA evidence was first used in court in 1994, when it cleared a suspect in a rape case. That same year, DNA evidence helped convict Tuen Mun rapist Lam Kwok-wai when tests proved he had sexually assaulted nine of the 10 victims.

Several lawmakers, among them Democrat James To Kun-sun and Emily Lau Wai-hing of The Frontier, have said the collection of DNA samples will amount to invasion of privacy.

However, Mr Wong said he did not remember names or the specifics of cases. 'The samples sent to us have only barcodes,' he said. 'We never know who they are.' Even if a man on the street came across a DNA profile, he would not know what to do with it. 'A DNA profile is just a long series of numbers, and they don't make sense to anyone who is not a scientist,' he said.

'Plus, the DNA characteristics we're looking at are not genes - we cannot recreate you. The information we have tells us nothing about your personal characteristics or possible criminal tendencies.'