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Canadian DNA lab knew its paternity tests identified the wrong dads, but it kept selling them

A Canadian DNA laboratory knowingly delivered prenatal paternity test results that routinely identified the wrong biological fathers — ruling out the real dads — and left a trail of shattered lives around the globe, a CBC News investigation has found.

Harvey Tenenbaum, the owner of Viaguard Accu-Metrics, told a CBC producer with a hidden camera during a conversation in his office that prenatal paternity test results that his laboratory produced for about a decade were “never that accurate.”

The hidden camera conversation unfolded in the midst of a months-long CBC News investigation into a years-long pattern of erroneous results produced by Viaguard’s non-invasive prenatal paternity testing. The test — if done correctly — matches DNA from a fetus that is in a mother’s blood with the biological father’s DNA. 

Viaguard, based in Toronto, sold its prenatal tests through various related online storefronts with names like Prenatal Paternities Inc. and Paternity Depot.

“The test was not that accurate…. And we’re leery of that test now,” said Tenenbaum.

Tenenbaum is 91 and still runs the laboratory, showing up onsite most days, answering phones and meeting with customers. 

WATCH | Viaguard customers swap stories of conflicting paternity tests:

Conflicting paternity results from Viaguard anger customer

10 minutes ago

Duration 0:59

After North Bay resident Corale Mayer received conflicting prenatal paternity tests from Viagaurd, she found others with similar stories.

A longtime businessman, it seems he began selling DNA services through Viaguard in the early 2000s, registering a prenatal paternity division in 2013, according to business records. 

During the hidden camera encounter, he presented himself as a seasoned scientific expert who’s seen it all, and, in a matter-of-fact tone, said he knows mistaken prenatal paternity results could inflict lasting damage on lives.

“There’s a lot involved if it gets screwed up,” Tenenbaum told the CBC News producer, who posed as a prospective customer seeking a paternity test.

“What if it’s the wrong guy named and you’re aborting your child of, you know, a wrong person…. We can imagine everything happens in life…. You see them all, and worse, and worse.”

He also described instances where Viaguard’s tests were proven wrong during a birth. 

“That has happened. Test the white guy and the baby came out Black, and the white guy’s saying: ‘What’s going on here?'” said Tenenbaum.

Harvey Tenenbaum, the owner of Viaguard Accu-Metrics, told a CBC producer with a hidden camera that prenatal paternity test results that his laboratory produced for about a decade were "never that accurate."
Harvey Tenenbaum, the owner of Viaguard Accu-Metrics, told a CBC producer with a hidden camera that prenatal paternity test results that his laboratory produced for about a decade were “never that accurate.” (Ousama Farag/CBC News)

When CBC News later directly approached Tenenbaum, he reversed himself, saying the tests were “accurate” and “perfect.” He said he stopped selling them over rising overhead costs. 

CBC News interviewed dozens of people whose lives were impacted by Viaguard’s wrong prenatal paternity test results. Many former customers paid from $800 to slightly more than $1,000 for the laboratory’s home test kits from 2014 to 2020. 

The interviews included men and women in Montreal, North Bay, Ont., and Victoria. Other former customers interviewed were in Montana, Georgia, California, Guatemala, the U.K. and Australia. 

In many cases, aftershocks still ripple, as a parent tries to make up for lost time or struggles to find the right way to reveal the truth about paternity. 

“I really hate the name Viaguard,” said Corale Mayer, 22, from North Bay, Ont.

WATCH | Faulty paternity test changed this Atlanta man’s life:

Viaguard’s test altered the trajectory of this Atlanta man’s life

10 minutes ago

Duration 0:40

A Viaguard paternity test told Atlanta resident John Brennan he was going to be a father when he was 21. Another test would later prove he wasn’t the dad.

Mayer received two wrong prenatal paternity test results — one identified the wrong biological father, the other ruled out the actual one — that altered the trajectory of her 2020 pregnancy. 

It pushed her to try to involve a man who wanted nothing to do with her or her child, she said. 

“It’s extremely traumatic.” 

Mayer helped start a social media-based group with dozens of others who also said their lives were burned by Viaguard’s wrong prenatal paternity results. 

“When I found out there were other people … it was a relief,” she said. “Finally, I could talk to somebody, and they would be like, ‘Yup, I get that.’ It was nice to feel I am not insane.”

‘Get me my money’

Viaguard claimed to use a common prenatal paternity test commercially available to the public since about 2014. 

Experts say it is highly accurate, if conducted properly. 

A non-invasive prenatal paternity test, it matches thousands of genomic data points — known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) — in the fetal DNA, which flows in the mother’s blood, with thousands of SNPs in the father’s DNA. 

However, Tenenbaum seemed to rely more on guesswork than science when handling at least some prenatal paternity tests, former employees alleged in interviews with CBC News. 

Sika Richot worked for nearly three months answering phones for Viaguard in 2019. 

Richot said she was coached to ask women seeking prenatal paternity test kits about times in their menstrual cycles and the dates they had intercourse with different men — information that is useless for a DNA test. 

A person sits on a couch in a living room.
Sika Richot worked for nearly three months answering phones for Viaguard in 2019. Richot said she was coached to ask women seeking prenatal paternity test kits about times in their menstrual cycles and the dates they had intercourse with different men. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

Staff put the dates into an online ovulation calendar to narrow down the possible biological father, she said. Richot then entered the information into a form that went to Tenenbaum for signoff.

“[Tenenbaum] would always make a comment like: ‘It’s definitely this one [the biological father]. It’s this one, it’s got to be this one,'” said Richot. 

Samantha Friday, who also answered phones, worked there for slightly more than a year. She said Tenenbaum micromanaged all laboratory operations. 

“It sounds horrible to say, but it was kind of like … get me my money. That was it. Just kind of get me my money,” said Friday.

“I think anyone who has had their DNA done for whatever purposes in the Toronto lab should probably consider redoing them.”

Richot and Friday did not handle any samples or conduct any laboratory work while working at Viaguard.

Same man, same lab, conflicting results

In 2019 Mayer, at 19, found out she was pregnant. It was a physically difficult unplanned pregnancy during a confusing time in her life. She was prescribed medicine to deal with intense nausea that often overwhelmed and debilitated her.

The physical complications compounded another stress that overshadowed her pregnancy. She didn’t know the identity of her baby’s father. She said it made her feel shame, but Mayer believed a prenatal paternity test could give her some semblance of stability.

“I was like, I really need to do this now,” she said. “The sooner I find out, the sooner my life can continue.”

She found Viaguard online using the search terms “prenatal paternity testing near me.” 

The laboratory offered an option to pay the $800 in two installments. The test required her blood and a prospective father’s DNA to make a match. 

“It’s a DNA company, it’s science. It’s black and white,” said Mayer.

WATCH | Viaguard owner captured on hidden camera: 

Viaguard owner admits his tests were ‘inaccurate’ on hidden camera

10 minutes ago

Duration 0:55

Posing as a potential customer, and using a hidden camera, a CBC producer asked Viaguard owner Harvey Tenenbaum about his company’s paternity tests.

Mayer received a prenatal paternity testing kit from Viaguard in the mail. She was documenting her pregnancy for a school project and a friend filmed her as she pricked her finger with a lancet and squeezed drops of blood into a vial. 

Then, she secured the inner-cheek buccal swab from the man she believed was the father, packed the sealed samples, put them in a box and sent them in the mail to Viaguard. 

The test result said the man she tested wasn’t the father. She sent a second set of samples to Viaguard from a different man. This time, the results said he was the match.

After the birth of her daughter, the presumed biological father demanded a postnatal paternity test. Mayer agreed and turned to Viaguard again. This time, the result said he wasn’t the biological father. 

“You know when you’re just so hysterically upset, you laugh like you’re just beyond emotion?” said Mayer. “There’s no way that this is real.”

An aerial shot shows a row of commercial businesses along a sidewalk with trees spaced out in it.
A months-long CBC News investigation found a years-long pattern of erroneous results produced by Viaguard Accu-Metric’s non-invasive prenatal paternity testing. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Two months after the birth, another laboratory determined the man Mayer first tested, the one Viaguard said was a zero per cent probability of a match, was her daughter’s actual biological father. 

Mayer provided CBC News with copies of the test results.

Viaguard began selling prenatal paternity tests in December 2010 for $800, according to internet archive records stored by the WayBack Machine.

CBC News determined Viaguard stopped offering the tests between December 2020 and sometime in 2021.

CBC News sent Tenenbaum and his lawyer a detailed list of questions in March and requested an interview, but received no response to that query. 

In late March, a reporter approached Tenenbaum outside his laboratory to ask him when he first found problems with the tests and when he stopped offering them. 

A person shows a tatoo saying "Travesty" on the right bicep.
While John Brennan believed he was a father, he tattooed the child’s name, Travis, on his upper arm. It now reads: ‘Travesty.’ (Ousama Farag/CBC)

“The tests were never flawed, the tests are perfect, the tests are accurate,” he said as he walked to his car. 

He suggested customers were responsible for mistakes in results because of the way they gathered their samples to send in the mail.

“You do thousands of tests and half the errors are the collection problems,” said Tenenbum. 

“You’re not testing people, you’re testing one stain against another stain.” 

Viaguard had conducted thousands of prenatal paternity tests over the years, he said.

A price hike in a testing substance, not results repeatedly naming false fathers, caused him to stop the tests, said Tenenbaum.

‘Not something that could be done at home’ 

Dr. Mohammad Akbari, director of research at the molecular genetics laboratory at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said the type of test Viaguard claimed to use depends heavily on having enough of a mother’s blood to be able to extract the fetus’s DNA.

A few drops squeezed into a vile from a finger is not enough, said Akbari. A proper test would draw at least 10 millilitres of blood from a mother’s vein, he said.

Viaguard did, in some instances, use blood drawn from a vein. Some customers who used Viaguard in 2015 told CBC News that someone who appeared to be a nurse visited their home to draw their blood. In other instances, including in a California lawsuit that resulted in a settlement, customers went to a local laboratory with Viaguard’s test kit for the blood draw. 

Those tests also wrongly identified a biological father. 

It’s almost impossible, if done correctly, for these highly accurate tests, which line up thousands of DNA data points for a match, to produce a false positive match, to identify the wrong man as the biological father of the fetus, Akbari said. 

Yet, a false positive Viaguard result happened to John Brennan in 2015.

“As soon as I saw those test results, it was like a line in the sand. Immediately, right then and there, things just changed,” he said. 

A person stands in a lab.
Dr. Mohammad Akbari, director of research at the molecular genetics laboratory at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, says the type of test Viaguard claimed to use depends heavily on having enough of a mother’s blood to be able to extract a fetus’s DNA. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Brennan, from Atlanta, Ga., bought a house and a car to prepare for the sudden new reality as a father. His family swung in for support. His mother was feted with a “grandmother shower” by friends. 

After the birth, his son became his world, but serious strain developed with the child’s mother. Brennan hired a lawyer and spent about $20,000 in a legal battle over custody. 

The child’s mother, without telling him, obtained a separate postnatal paternity test that confirmed another man was the actual biological father. She broke the news to him over a text message in January 2017.

Brennan said he spiralled into a self-destructive depression. Gaps remain in his memory of that time. 

“There’s not a handbook on how to handle raising a kid for eight months and then finding out that it’s not yours,” said Brennan. “You’re left in a mysterious, dark place mentally.”

While Brennan believed he was a father, he tattooed the child’s name, Travis, on his upper arm. It now reads: “Travesty.”

Gaps in regulations

Associate Prof. Ma’n Zawati, research director for McGill University’s Centre of Genomics and Policy in Montreal, says private commercial DNA laboratories don’t need licences to operate and sell services.

Entities like Viaguard can operate by sliding through Canada’s patchwork of regulations, siloed among professional bodies, consumer protection agencies, government entities and departments at the federal and provincial levels, he said.

Health Canada said in an emailed statement to CBC News it does not regulate commercial DNA labs like Viaguard.

A person stands in an office.
Associate professor Ma’n Zawati, research director for McGill University’s Centre of Genomics and Policy in Montreal, says private commercial DNA laboratories don’t need licences to operate and sell services. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

The federal government should step in and fill gaps to protect consumers from a proliferation of companies selling DNA tests and fixes that could have serious impacts on the health and welfare of individuals and society, said Zawati.

“There is an expectation to protect the public,” he said. “There is a role for Health Canada to play in that.”

The Standards Council of Canada (SCC) stripped Viaguard of its accreditation in 2015. Federal Court records from the laboratory’s failed legal bid to reverse the decision show the federal agency was aware of larger issues with Viaguard.  

The SCC received nine complaints against Viaguard over four years, including two “representing multiple customers,” according to a 2017 SCC report. 

“A common theme of erroneous or inaccurate results” ran through the complaints which focused on “paternity or familial testing,” said the report. 

Viaguard still does business. On its website, it offers postnatal paternity and maternal DNA tests, along with DNA bird sexting, bait to sterilize mice and rats, and dog DNA breed testing. 

It runs websites selling treatments for foot fungus and dementia while operating virtual storefronts under names like Paternity Legal, Paternity Africa and Global Paternity.

Viaguard’s continued existence frustrates some former customers like Mayer.

“The main thing I want for Viaguard is for it to close down,” said Mayer. “I think that’s a collective feeling. I don’t think anyone would even imagine that it would still be open.”

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