External quality control of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA detection remains an important issue. This study reports and compares the results obtained from two different proficiency panels for both the qualitative and quantitative assessment of HBV DNA. The panels were designed by the European Union Quality Control Concerted Action, prepared by Boston Biomedica, Inc., and distributed in May 1999 (panel 1) and February 2000 (panel 2). Each contained two negative samples and six positive samples with 10(3) to 10(7) copies/ml (panel 1) or 10(3) to 2 x 10(6) copies of HBV DNA per ml (panel 2). For panel 1, 42 laboratories submitted 20 qualitative (all in-house PCRs) and 37 quantitative (87% commercial assays) data sets. For panel 2, 51 laboratories submitted 25 qualitative (all in-house PCRs) and 47 quantitative (94% commercial assays) data sets. Five data sets (8.8%) in panel 1 and two data sets (2.8%) in panel 2 contained totals of six and two false-positives, respectively, corresponding to false-positive result rates of 5.3% for panel 1 and 1.4% for panel 2. The false-negative result rates of 10.5% for panel 1 and 17.4% for panel 2 were dependent on the detection levels of the assays employed as well as panel composition. In the qualitative analysis of all data sets, 47.4% (panel 1) and 51.4% (panel 2) had all samples correct. An adequate or better score (all correct or only the weak-positive sample missed) was obtained with 77.2% of the panel 1 samples and 68.1% of the panel 2 samples. In the quantitative analysis, 57.1% (panel 1) and 42.6% (panel 2) of the data sets achieved an adequate or better score (positive results within the acceptable range of the geometric mean +/- 0.5 log(10) of all positive results). These results demonstrate that while the qualitative performance of HBV detection has considerably improved compared to that of a previously published HBV proficiency study, the detection levels of many commercial quantitative assays are still too high to allow adequate quantitation of all relevant clinical samples.