National DNA Data Bank (BNDG)

Banco Nacional de Datos Genéticos

Mariana Herrera Piñero

Technical Director of the National Genetic Data Bank

PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires; she specialized in Forensic and Molecular Genetics at the Argentine Society of Forensic Genetics (SAGF).  She has published several scientific papers, has directed doctoral and degree theses, has been part of the evaluation committee for the specialization degree in Forensic Genetics at the Argentinean Society of Forensic Genetics, spoken in several courses and seminars and has a wide experience in forensic genetics and in papers related to the identification of people. 

The National DNA Data Bank (BNDG) was created at the beginning of the democratic recovery period to help identify genetically the children of persons who had disappeared during the State Terrorism period between 1976 and 1983, and who had been deprived of their identity and appropriated by military oppressors based on a systematic plan designed and implemented by military officers of the highest rank.

For such purpose, on May 13 1987, Act No. 23511 was enacted to create the BNDG. Despite its first section mentioned that the BNDG's purpose was to "clarify conflicts relative to family relationships" all its operative provisions referred mainly to identify the “children who had disappeared or were born during confinement” by the actions from the State terrorism suffered by our country between 1976 and 1983.

For 22 years, the BNDG developed a genetic database based on genetic samples provided by relatives (mainly grandparents) of appropriated children, which were received and stored at the BNDG. Thousands of genetic analyses were performed in children who were suspected to have been born from missing parents and had been appropriated by oppressors, and such analyses contributed to identify 109 children.

On November 17, 2009, Act No. 26548 was passed, which extended the purpose of the BNDG to identify any person (either alive or dead, irrespective of their age) who had been forced to disappear during the undemocratic military government until December 10, 1983 when democracy came back. Particularly, section 2 of such act prescribes that the purpose of the BNDG is to:  “a) Search for and identify children born from missing persons, who had been kidnapped together with their parents or were born during confinement of their mothers; and b) Assist the judicial system and/or governmental and non-governmentalinement of their maneemere born in age), occurred during the undemocratic military per organizations specialized in the matter that is the purpose of this law, namely, to identify genetically the human remains of victims who were forced to disappear.”

Since its creation in 1987, the BNDG depends on the National Executive Power. Since its creation, it depended on two governments: The then Municipality of the City of Buenos Aires (dependent on the National Executive Power until 1994) provided staff and facilities at the Laboratory of Immunology located at Durand Hospital, while the National Health Ministry was responsible for its equipment and supplies. Act No. 26548 maintained such dependency of the BNDG on the National Executive Power, but transferred it to the sphere of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation.

Act No. 26548 established for the BNDG a legal status that is higher than its previous legal status, as it was made an autarchic and autonomous institution.  In other words, it can – among other things – appoint its own authorities by public contest based on public examination and background, instead of such authorities being designated on a discretionary basis, as they had been so far. On the other hand, its autarchic and autonomous status grants it protection against political manipulation. Act No. 23511 prescribed that the BNDG would be managed by the chief of the Immunology Service of the Durand Hospital, as at that time this service had only one laboratory for the public sector that performed HLA tests, based on which genetic identification was performed at those times. So, Dr. Ana María Di Lonardo, chief of the immunology service at such hospital, became the BNDG Director, who held that position until she retired 20 years later. Since then, its Director has been Dr. Belén Rodríguez Cardozo.

BNDG services are rendered for free for the purposes established by law. Act No. 26548 also prescribes that such genetic identification services must be provided for free and the Ministry of Science is committed to continue providing them on a free of charge basis. This Ministry never intended nor does it intend now to introduce the private sector or to do business with the activities of the BNDG, which would otherwise be contrary to law.

After the enactment of Act No. 26548, the National Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation assumed responsibility (until that time it had been under the responsibility of the National Health Ministry) to provide the equipment and supplies, as required by the BNDG Director, and to continue with its genetic identification work uninterruptedly, as prescribed by law. Therefore, genetic profiles of hundreds of young persons from different sources (CONADI, judicial orders, spontaneous presentations, etc.) have been continuously analyzed and compared against the BNDG's database.

Since Act No. 26548 was passed, and to comply with its provisions, the BNDG stopped performing genetic analyses on persons who were not suspected to be victims of crimes against humanity, such as paternity tests, and other tests of a civil or criminal nature. Genetic identification tests of a criminal nature are within the scope of the judicial system, and they are performed by forensic genetic laboratories with which agreements have been signed.

In order to comply with the provisions of Act No. 26548, this Ministry started a process for regulating its implementation, which was the basis for the National Executive Decree No. 38/2013 of January 25, 2013. To continue with the process to transfer the BNDG to the sphere of this Ministry, a new laboratory and data center has been built in the facilities of this Ministry, located at Avenida Córdoba 831, City of Buenos Aires, this facility was vacant as the Ministry has new offices in the neighborhood of Palermo, City of Buenos Aires. Dr. Hernán Dopazo provided advice for the design and to obtain the authorizations and permits required, all of which has already been completed. The purpose of the second phase is to transfer samples, equipment and staff, and is being coordinated by Dr. Héctor Targovnik and Dr. Víctor Penchaszadeh, who were also involved in the regulation of Act No. 26548.

Both Act No. 23511 and Act No. 26548 prescribe that besides genetic identifications for family relationship purposes, another function of the BNDG is to conduct scientific research on its own purpose. Since 1987 to date, no research has been performed and there are no plans to perform genetic / genomic research of any kind. Compliance with Act No. 26548, section 3, subsection (a) (“promote and perform research and investigation in connection with its purpose”) will be the responsibility of the BNDG authorities designated by public contest.

Act No. 26548 states that BNDG as a whole (equipment, digital genetic profiles, biologic samples, files, judicial files, supplies, etc.) will be transferred to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation. This Ministry undertakes responsibility to proceed with the transfer of such elements from the BNDG to its new facility, located at Avenida Córdoba 831, with all guarantees in connection with safety, chain of custody, reserve and confidentiality, etc. At its new facility, safety measures will be implemented of a much higher standard than those implemented at the Durand Hospital. This Ministry has been committed to implementing a much higher level of efficiency than the level achieved so far. For such purpose, it will be equipped with next generation equipment (in a scientific and technical field which has permanent innovations) and it will try to transfer to the new facility all the employees currently employed by the BNDG, to fill similar positions as those held as employees of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.

Act No. 26548 prescribes that current BNDG employees have the right to "opt for staying at their current positions to perform their current work at the new functional area, for which seniority in their positions as well as any other related labor rights will be recognized.”  As the Ministry of Science is aware of the importance of skilled human resources for any scientific undertaking, it has the intent to transfer all the current BNDG staff to its new facility. It will obviously depend on the individual willingness of each BNDG employee.

Technical and scientific coordination has the following purposes only: a) Compliance with the law and that any BNDG property used for the functions described in Act No. 26548 (biologic samples, genetic profiles, databases, files and folios, equipment, supplies, etc.) be transferred to the new facility, maintaining the chain of custody and guaranteeing safety, confidentiality, and privacy of the genetic information involved; and b) BNDG should be able to work better than it currently works in its new facility and to keep any employee who decides to remain at his/her position. Dr. Targovnik and Dr. Penchaszadeh have been in contact at all times with the current BNDG Director, Dr. Belén Rodríguez Cardozo, and are assisted by a team of administrative, technical and lawyers from the Ministry of Science.

Among the main actions performed we could mention:

a. Permanent contact between the BNDG’s current Director, Dr. Belén Rodríguez Cardozo.

b. Individual interviews with all BNDG employees to receive their ideas, comments, and documents required for effecting their voluntary transfer and permanence at this institution.

c. Improvement of the administrative management and budgetary performance of the funds provided by the Ministry to this institution, ensuring an adequate inflow of supplies and reagents. 

d. Purchase of new next generation equipment.

e. Management together with the department of Human Resources of the Ministry to ensure any employee who decides to stay at the BNDG at its new facility can do it by making compatible their current positions, salaries, fees, etc., in the sphere of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires with those within the sphere of the Ministry of Science.

This process is underway and we expect each BNDG employee's decision in connection with the conditions offered to them to exercise their option right in the short term.

Regulation of Act No. 26548:

Since Act No. 26548 modifies several legislative aspects connected with the functioning and composition of the BNDG, among others, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation created, through Resolution No. 224/10, a Consulting Committee which elaborated the project for the regulation and application of the new law. Currently the Committee has completed its work and the law was regulated by Decree 38/2013.