The UAE aims to start collecting genetic samples from residents within 12 months as part of its controversial DNA database project, the programme's director said yesterday, making it the first country in the world to do so.
Dr Ahmed al Marzooqi, the director of the National DNA Database, also said the order for millions of people to allow lab technicians to collect samples of their DNA by swabbing their cheeks would probably be given as a security directive and not require the passage of new legislation. "The first step is to set up the infrastructure and hire the lab technicians," he said in an interview with The National.
"This should take us approximately one year." Then, he said, the UAE would start collecting DNA samples from the general public, beginning with juveniles. "The aim is to eventually have a profile of the entire population," said Dr Marzooqi, who is also the chairman of the DNA Working Group, made up of various police forces across the Emirates. "Our goal is to sample one million per year, which could take as long as 10 years if you factor in the population growth."
Some officials have suggested that the DNA programme may require new legislation, which would then need to be considered by the Federal National Council. But Dr al Marzooqi said this might not be the case. "We are not sure if this will go through the Federal National Council or not," he said. "It could simply be decided as a security matter and not need the legislation of the FNC." The legislative route seems increasingly remote given that a new government department, the National DNA Database, has already been formed within the Ministry of Interior and collection kits ordered to help the police gather genetic material.
At present, only 5,000 DNA profiles are stored, all of convicted felons. The notion of collecting DNA samples from non-criminals has raised ethical concerns about privacy protection. In Britain, for example, such use of DNA was contested last year in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Britain must purge non-criminal genetic material from its database. The UAE has not accepted the jurisdiction of any such body.
Even attempting such a database - in which DNA is gathered from the entire population, even those who have never gone through the legal system - is basically unheard of, said Sir Alec Jeffreys, the British genetics pioneer who invented the DNA profiling system. He expressed concern over the lack of legislation required for a national database. "It will be interesting to see how this develops," he said.
"How this works out will really set the scene for how other countries approach this problem. If it's seen as a great success which the population and citizenry fully endorse, I think it will open the way for a lot of other countries going down this route. "If it turns into a disaster for whatever reason, that will be the end of the story. You are the interesting experiment at this point." Dr al Marzooqi, who is also Interpol's single Middle Eastern representative in its DNA Monitoring Expert Group, said he was aware of the project's challenges.
"We are certain the pros will outweigh the cons," he said. "The issue of privacy is just as important for us as it is important for the public. We will implement strict usage rules and will take secondary tests in court cases to verify the identity matches." Other nations could use information from the UAE's data bank, but not access the material, he said. Treaties and other international agreements would dictate the specifics.
"If there is co-operation with the country seeking the DNA profile, we share this information through Interpol - only the DNA profile, and obviously not the sample," he said. Because each country may have its own database of DNA profiles, Dr al Marzooqi said, databases would not be merged with those of any other country. "Not every country who asks will be given this information," he said. The database, he added, would be "instrumental in helping with unsolved crimes, identifying unknown bodies and will also be a great help in major disasters, either man-made or natural".