The new DNA testing high-throughput lab at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver is up and running but not fully operational due to ongoing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, the crime lab was contacted by ThermoFisher, a supplier of instruments widely used within the forensic community, which requested help in state efforts to increase the testing of COVID-19 samples. The University of Washington needed the machines, but the supplier was unable to provide them due to high demand. The lab agreed to loan two ThermoFisher 7500 testing units to the university.
At that time, the high-throughput lab was still under construction. The new lab will help clear thousands of untested sexual assault kits statewide. Legislation that passed unanimously last year set up new procedures for testing sexual assault kits and called for the development of the lab in Vancouver. It should allow the backlog of up to 10,000 kits to be eliminated in less than two years.
The machines were picked up and taken to the university in late March, said Bruce Siggins, WSP Crime Laboratory manager. ThermoFisher delivered replacements about a week later. The machines are operational and currently being used, he said.
The high-throughput lab was scheduled for completion no later than the end of June. The lab received a required certification from the city of Vancouver on June 12, and the staff needed to run it moved into the space shortly thereafter, Siggins said.
All of the newly hired scientists who work in the high-throughput lab have completed the first phase of their training and are moving into a limited screening of sexual assault casework while continuing with additional trainings.
Despite the lab’s construction being completed, the high-throughput lab is not fully operational. Two robotic units used in the lab are in the process of being programmed and calibrated, the crime lab manager said.
“COVID-19 has had an impact in the short-term on the progress of programming the robotic equipment, since Hamilton (the company that makes the equipment) is also servicing the public health labs testing COVID samples,” so the high-throughput lab is having to compete for the engineer’s available time, Siggins said.
Long-term, Siggins said, he is confident the lab will achieve the legislative goal of eliminating the state’s rape kit backlog and reducing the processing time for the kits to fewer than 45 days by May 1, 2022. Historically, DNA analysis of some sexual assault kits can take an average of a year to complete.
The high-throughput lab had tested 275 rape kits this year as of the end of September, according to data provided by Washington State Patrol. Siggins said a comparison with years past wasn’t appropriate, because the lab isn’t fully operational.
Officials previously told The Columbian that once the high-throughput lab opened and staff was fully trained, each scientist should be able to complete an average of 14 sexual assault kits per month, which is double the amount they were expected to complete using previous methods.
In 2018, the total number of newly received sexual assault cases was about 2,400 (not including historical cases). That number was expected to exceed 2,600 cases in 2019.
In other Vancouver crime lab news, the State Patrol was recently awarded a nearly $1.9 million federal grant to address DNA processing. In part, the money will help pay for the salaries and benefits of three lab technicians, including one in Vancouver.