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National reference laboratories (NRL) and other laboratories are the cornerstones of well-functioning tuberculosis programmes and surveillance activities. However, the scope and activity of NRL services for mycobacterial identification and drug susceptibility testing (DST) has not been examined in detail across the European Union (EU), nor has the added value of cooperation and networking at the European level been explored with regard to strengthening laboratory services. Therefore, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has commissioned a survey to explore these issues and to identify areas of work that could bring added value by supporting networking activities of tuberculosis (TB) reference laboratories in the EU. Structured questionnaires were sent to TB reference laboratory experts in the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries, and in three additional countries selected on the basis of their networking activities with EU projects and other initiatives (Switzerland, Croatia and Israel). The compiled results describe the activities and structure of 32 NRLs (29 countries replied, a response rate of 91%). The analysis of the survey led to the following recommendations for strengthening TB laboratory services: (1) implementing of the published European standards for TB laboratory services with respect to infrastructure, national reference functions, biosafety, human resources, quality assurance, operational research (including evaluation of new medical diagnostics), accuracy and speed, appropriately trained staff; (2) ensuring that laboratories only perform activities for which they have demonstrated proficiency; (3) implement validated and standardised second-line drug susceptibility testing (DST), including drugs used to define extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB); (4) aiming to identify Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC) and rifampicin (RIF) resistance in over 90% of cultures and cases from smear-positive sputum directly within one to two working days. To realise some of the above recommendations and to strengthen links of TB surveillance and microbiology activities in the EU, a list of suggested generic areas of activities for an EU network of reference laboratories is presented. Such a network would build on and link to existing networks and initiatives at the European and global level.


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