Identification of War Victims in Ukraine Using an Innovative Mobile DNA Lab

On February 24th 2022, Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, launched a special military operation leading to the invasion of Ukraine in the direction of the capital, Kiev. At the end of February, Russian forces took the city of Bucha located in the suburbs of Kiev and occupied the field for a month.


At the end of March, Russian troops were pushed back by Ukrainian forces and redeployed to the east and south of the country. Retreating Russians left territories and military equipment destroyed by the fighting as well as traces of violence on civilians.


In Bucha, hundreds of corpses are found in the streets and in several improvised mass graves. Russia stands accused of war crimes, as western leaders condemned the killings of unarmed civilians. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, responded favorably to the request of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and sent experts from the Forensic Science Laboratory of the French Gendarmerie (IRCGN) to identify the victims and determine the causes of death.


The IRCGN sent a task force of 16 military experts in DNA, odontology, fingerprints, legal medicine and ballistics to Ukraine. During 5 weeks from April to May 2022, the mobile DNA lab patented by the Gendarmerie and ISO/CEI 17025 certified, was used on site to perform more than 200 DNA analysis from cadavers and victims’ families.  Therefore, the mobile system provided real time victim identification with DNA typing. This specialized mobile lab unit enables collection, extraction, quantification and analysis of DNA from all types of human samples including bones at the same level of performance as a traditional laboratory setting.


In this interview, Sylvain Hubac, Head of the DNA Division, shares what makes the mobile DNA laboratory uniquely suited for Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) scenarios. He also discusses how it has been used in the past and his experience identifying victims of the Ukrainian conflict in an active war context.





Laura: Thank you for joining us for this year’s video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we are very honored to have Sylvain Hubac with us. Sylvain, I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and your background before we begin.


Sylvain: Ok, thank you, thank you. So I am Sylvain Hubac. I am in the military, so I am a Colonel in the French Gendarmerie. I joined the forensic DNA lab of the French Gendarmerie 18 years ago and I began in the position of DNA analyst and I progressed to Deputy Head of Department for Reference Samples and now I’m the head of the full Genetic Identity Division of the French Gendarmerie.


Laura: That is amazing. What a career progression in 18 years. That’s amazing. Incredible.


Sylvain: I don’t know if it’s incredible.


Laura: It sounds like it. What got you interested in the field of forensics? How did it start?


Sylvain: I have an interest in really concrete things, and in my opinion, forensics is really concrete. There are a lot of applications for the field, and that is what interests me about this field in particular. I don’t like to learn things and not be able to apply them.


Laura: That makes a lot of sense and is an excellent answer. I always like asking that question because you get a different answer no matter who it is. So, you are presenting at ISHI this year, and your presentation obviously is talking about something that has the world’s attention and is something that has been very difficult for a lot of people to watch. Why don’t I let you talk about it, because I think that would be better. Tell us what you’ve been doing and the partnership that you had with Ukraine to assist with the identification of the bodies.


Sylvain: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to demonstrate that we make all the efforts that we can to help the Ukrainian people, and, for my position, the best way was to realize DNA identification, because this is my job. So, we have now a lot of experience in a DVI context with my forensic lab, so I think it was the best way to help the Ukrainian people.


Laura: And you implemented a mobile lab, so you actually went on the ground to do identifications. Let’s talk about that.


Sylvain: Yeah, so we developed a mobile lab solution in 2015, so for seven years now. The purpose of this mobile lab is really to obtain DNA results and DNA analysis as quickly as possible depending on the context. And it’s very appreciated in DVI context for example. So, the first time we used this mobile lab was for the airplane crash of German Wings. I remember that 150 people had died, and with this mobile lab solution, we were able to analyze a lot of DNA directly on the field and we solved all of the identifications in only 6 weeks, so it was very rapid.

The second important time that it was used was the terrorist attack in Nice in 2016. I remember there were around 90 victims and by the same way with this mobile DNA lab, we identified all of the victims in the span of 2 days, so it was very fruitful for that.

And then it was adapted for the efforts in Ukraine, because the conditions in the field were very difficult. You’re in a war context and it wasn’t the only problem for the Ukrainian people. There were other problems. Of course, there were problems with identifying the victims, but of course, there were other problems during the war. So, France can help the Ukrainian people to identify the victims and that’s why we sent the mobile lab to Ukraine.


Laura: That partnership was remarkable. I was really moved reading it. How do you do that? Like you said, you have to adapt it to bring it into that kind of environment where there’s an active war going on and I understand, you were in Bucha, so just outside of Kiev, so you were very close to everything that had just happened. What kind of experts did you use? How do you safely do what you need to do?


Sylvain: We sent a taskforce of 16 forensic experts in DNA, medicine, explosives, and fingerprints. Concerning mobile lab, we got to Kiev by road from Paris, so 2 days with 3 tons of material, so 12 very big trucks on the road, and it was the easiest route to arrive in Kiev, because there is no flight in Ukraine right now (either civilian or military flight). So, there is only one way to reach Kiev which is on the road. So, we took 2 days to reach Kiev from Paris, but after we were on-site, we examined the bodies and analyzed the DNA directly on the field, very near to Bucha in fact.


Laura: Ok, wow. 2 days on the road. Did you encounter anything? I’m sure you tactically planned a way to get there, but it just seems like there’s so many things to think about. It’s overwhelming. You took 12 vehicles and so many supplies.


Sylvain: In fact, it’s in our DNA, because we are military, so this kind of organization, is in the DNA of each of my guys and myself, so organizing travel like that is very easy. In fact we’ve trained for that. We are trained in military school, but in our annual training, we have an exercise for that. So, it’s not an issue even if you are in a war context. And after we arrived in Ukraine, there was security for the lab by the Ukrainian Police.


Laura: I just find it incredible reading about it but hearing it from you really brings it to life, so we’re honored that you’re here to share about it. This is a harder question, because it’s subjective, so, don’t feel obligated to answer, but how do you deal with that when you’re in the field and you’re on the ground and you’re seeing what’s happening and you have a job to do? Obviously, we’re all human. It must be very difficult.


Sylvain: Not really in fact, because we are mainly focused on the mission. So, we are often faced with disaster or faced with death or faced with bad things in life. So, it is of course we are in a war context, but victims from a crash aren’t really different from victims of war and that’s why when you are on a mission, you think about the mission, and you think about the benefits of your action also. We work not for the victim, because the victim is dead, but we work for the families of the victims and it’s very important and is a high motivation.


Laura: It’s a beautiful way to look at it, because that is the end goal to find some resolution for the families and do something to help. Rapid DNA, so we’ve been talking about that a lot in these interviews. Even though it’s as a commercial product, it’s been around since 2011, you know, there is some hesitation to implement it in some cases. You’ve obviously used it multiple times with success. What do you think are some of the keys to that that might help other people? What is some advice you might give?


Sylvain: When I talk about Rapid DNA, it’s not a Rapid DNA system, because it’s all in one instrument. I talk about Rapid DNA, because the process is rapid, but we are using regular instruments. The same instruments that you would use routinely in the lab, but we have made some changes to be able to ship these instruments and transport them directly in the field. So, basically, we use the same protocols that we use in routines, but with some differences to obtain results within 3 hours. But, it’s not a Rapid DNA machine.


Laura: Ok, so that’s fascinating. So right, just tweaking what you were using and then finding a way to make it mobile on the field. That’s amazing. You brought some props. Did you want tell us a little bit about what you have here?


Sylvain: For example, we develop specific protocols to collect DNA from cadavers and remains and we developed these protocols to quickly obtain DNA results. We made some innovations. One example of one of these innovations is this MicroFloq swab. So, MicroFloq swab is a French patent, but this product is made by the Copan company. Basically, when you compare a regular swab and a MicroFloq swab, they are very different. So, it’s not for that, ok, it’s for DNA collection, but the difference between this swab and this swab, is with the regular swab, you need DNA extraction, regular process to obtain results and it takes 5-6 hours. Compared to this swab, there are different regions caught on the fibers of the swab and you realize direct extraction when you collect DNA and you can process directly to PCR purification after collection. So, this way, you save time and it is a very sensitive tool so it is a very adaptive tool for samples that you can find for DVI. This way, you can obtain DNA results in less than 3 hours. So, we use in our routine this swab for DVI contexts.


Laura: That’s fascinating. So you’re talking about a patent. You hold a number of patents, I believe?


Sylvain: Yes, 5 patents. This is the first one. The second one is a mobile lab so there is another patent for the innovation that I developed with one of my colleagues in my job. So, we have 2 different patents with my colleagues. The last patent is about DNA preservation, so I imagine a system to preserve DNA with a large volume. The innovations that we made with my colleague is to improve DNA extraction yield and to improve the reproducibility to consider that the first step of the process is to take your sample and put your sample inside the tube. So it’s 2 steps and to facilitate handling of the samples and reduce the risk of contamination.


Laura: So, in your presentation, you’re going to talk about the samples that were processed and what happened with that. Maybe you can give us a little preview of what that looks like?


Sylvain: Yeah, like a spoiler? We collected around 180 post-mortem samples, and we got 98% positive results and we obtained negative results from only 4 samples, but there was only a little bit of fragmented bones, so it was not well suited for DNA analysis. For reference samples, we analyzed around 70 reference samples from relatives of the victims directly on the field from ID cards. So, we did direct comparison from A data and B data to identify the victim, because there is no national database in Ukraine at this time, so we did direct comparison.


Laura: That’s amazing. 180 samples in I believe you were there 5 weeks. That is quite a bit to do.


Sylvain: Yes, but it is not a very high volume, in fact, because with the mobile lab we can process around 200 samples per day, but we have to consider that you are in a war context and that you can’t work like you want in this context. You are not in your home or your country, so you have to adapt to the situation. You have to adapt your protocol. That’s why it’s a real deal to combine the work on the lab with the work on the field to collect DNA or to identify bodies, and the context with the missile alerts. Because when there is a missile alert, you stop your work, so you have to go to the basement of your building and you wait until the end of the alert so that you can go back to work. It’s difficult. It’s not a regular workflow in fact. That’s why we just processed 180 samples in 5 weeks.


Laura: That still does seem like quite a lot given what you just said and how much you were going through. Did the missiles… was that happening quite often? Were you in the basement quite a bit?


Sylvain: Yes, depending on the day, but yes. Some days, 3, 4, 5, times per day and not only during the day, but also during the night of course. So, depending on the day, depending on the moment, but you are not fully confident, because you don’t know when there will be a missile alert, so you don’t know where the missile will go. So, perhaps in my head, and I remember not for my mission, but there is not only my mission but there were other missions from my colleagues at the same lab, and from my colleagues a missile had touched the ground just 1 kilometer from the building that they were in, so this was not…


Laura: Were they ok?


Sylvain: Yeah, yeah, everybody is ok, but you understand that in this context you understand that it’s difficult to focus only on your sample.


Laura: Yeah, absolutely. I know you say that it’s our mission, but you have to be very brave. I think anybody looking from the outside would say that this was something that was very difficult to do and I can only imagine how much the families in Ukraine appreciate the effort to assist. What happened after you processed the samples? How did you share the information then?


Sylvain: Yeah it was a military cooperation between Ukraine and France and we were just in Ukraine to help Ukrainian authorities, so all of the data and the results are in the position of the Ukrainian authorities. We don’t have any of the results, but just gave them to the Ukrainians.


Laura: Ok, that makes a lot of sense. That’s really wonderful. Do you have any plans to go back or what are the next plans for the mobile lab? Are you moving onto other projects? If you can share. I know it’s the military, so maybe not.


Sylvain: It’s not a secret. We delivered a mobile lab to the Ukrainian authorities. So, we built a mobile lab following the French model, so I went to Kiev last July to train the Ukrainian people on how to use this mobile lab and training the Ukrainian people to use MicroFloq and to use our process to identify bodies. So, we plan to go back at the beginning of the next year, because we plan to deliver another mobile lab to the Ukrainian authorities. I think it’s not the last mission.


Laura: That’s a wonderful program to do. First go, then provide one and then a second mobile lab to allow them to continue to identify bodies in that very rapid way when things are still so terrible.


Sylvain: Yeah, it’s terrible, but like I said, we know why we do that and it’s extremely important, because for us and for my team and for all of the guys who go into Ukraine or Kiev to help the Ukrainian people, it’s really in the head of everyone that they want to go. It’s not required that they go. They volunteer to go. For the families, it’s difficult, of course, because there is a risk because there is a war, but everybody volunteers and everybody wants to help and it’s very appreciated by the Ukrainian people.


Laura: Well it’s certainly an honor for you to be here and sharing it with everybody here. I know people are looking forward to your presentation. I’ve heard it so many times during the opening reception and just walking around and other presenters that we’ve talked to. I’m very much looking forward to it as well.

So, I see 2 more props. What do we have here? I’m curious?


Sylvain: It’s one of the innovations. So, basically we use this type of system to process swabs and we developed another one with some specification to obtain more quantity of DNA after DNA extraction. So, basically, you continue to use this device, but we replace this device with this one. When you use it, you can see there is a cap on each well, so it’s made to prevent DNA contamination between each sample and this cap can be removed by an instrument, so we developed an instrument to process these caps and make possible the innovation also. So, this is just an illustration of what we use today and what we will use tomorrow after we get the mold for the project in a large quantity.


Laura: That’s amazing. Is that something that was developed based on your experience in the field and other mobile labs or before you actually went out in the mobile lab?


Sylvain: No, I think it’s a unique system.


Laura: That’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing that with us. Given that this is an audience of forensic scientists, is there anything else that we haven’t talked about yet that you think is important for them to know or that you’d like to share?


Sylvain: About what?


Laura: Just about your project in general. Certainly you’ll be giving a detailed presentation, but anything. This will be hitting a larger audience. It will be on our website and YouTube.


Sylvain: In general in my lab? So I think the rule of the lab is to propose the best solution for the guys in the field, so I keep always in my mind to develop some process to be more simple, easier to collect, easier to analyze, and faster to give the result and also improve the sensitivity to propose the best way to collect DNA samples. So, it’s a line that we want to use for developing some new innovations.


Laura: That’s wonderful. Have you ever been to ISHI before?


Sylvain: Yes, I try to attend ISHI each year, but with Covid, it was difficult, but I am trying to attend ISHI each year, because I think it’s a most interesting symposium in forensics in the world, so I attend only this symposium in fact, and we can share, we can meet some very interesting people, we can share some ideas, and we develop some partnerships, so I think it’s very important. So, that’s why I’m here.


Laura: That’s very kind to say. We appreciate that. I have really enjoyed meeting all of the forensics experts from around the world that come back every year and I have learned so much as well even though I’m no forensic expert. Anything that we missed? Anything else you’d like to share?


Sylvain: No, I have just a present for you.


Laura: This is a first! This is amazing.


Sylvain: It’s a tradition when you are military. You are not military, but it’s a tradition… You’re a member of my team.


Laura: I am so honored. This is a first, and this is possibly the best first there could ever be. This is amazing.


Sylvain: And this one came from Ukraine. It was in my suite in Ukraine.


Laura: This is amazing. I will treasure this. You did surprise me entirely. That’s so wonderful. Thank you for doing an interview with us.