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The Vietnam War was a deadly quagmire for the United States and its military. But for Vietnam itself, it was a national tragedy that ripped apart families and villages. To this day, some half million soldiers and civilians remain missing, lost in the fog of a war that ended more than 40 years ago.
Now a massive effort to identify the unknown, and lay the dead to rest is set to begin. A German testing company named Bioglobe struck a deal with the Vietnamese government last month, and the world’s largest DNA sequencing project ever will start in March.
“This highly sensitive project is a special challenge for us,” said Wolfgang Hoppner, the CEO of Bioglobe. “We are confident that we can arrange it successfully.”
The International Commission on Missing Persons will also be part of the venture, according to a report in the journal Nature. The ICMP was founded in 1996 to help identify an estimated 40,000 person who were killed during the ethnic wars in Bosnia, including the slaughter of 8,000 unarmed people in Srebrenica in 1995.
The Vietnam venture dwarfs that Balkan undertaking. The project is also going to pose some unique logistical challenges that come with a project in Southeast Asia. The heat and humidity, along with soil microbes in the tropical environment, mean that most of the DNA has probably been broken down over the decades, the experts reportedly said.
The DNA technology Bioglobe is planning to use is manufactured by the biotech company Qiagen, which essentially pulverizes bone samples and a chemical breaks down the cells before amplifying them for analysis.
A societal problem is that many of the victims were young, and had no children themselves. So distant relatives need to be found and tested to identify remains, the Nature report added.
Several DNA testing centers in Vietnam are being upgraded to accommodate the coming influx of samples – and training of experts is already underway. Approximately 10,000 people could eventually be identified per year, officials also told Nature.
The legacy of the Vietnam War, a civil war for the Asian country but a fight against the “domino effect” of Communism, continues into the 21st century. The health effects of the spraying of Agent Orange, a carcinogenic defoliant, are still being felt in the country. The U.S. has pledged its help to clean up some of the “hot spots” of the chemical, which could cost in the billions in years to come.