We tried to establish whether MT-4 cells that were infected with HIV-1(HTLV-III(B)) at a high multiplicity of infection (m.o.i.=1), and subsequently treated with high concentrations of anti-HIV drugs for several days, would be able to resume virus production after the antivirals are washed away. The HIV inhibitors studied were the nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) zidovudine and lamivudine, the non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) nevirapine, delavirdine and loviride, the acyclic nucleoside phosphonate RT inhibitor (R)-9-(2-phosphonylmethoxypropyl)adenine (tenofovir) and the protease inhibitors (PIs) saquinavir, indinavir and ritonavir. The compounds, at 50 and 500 times their 50% inhibitory concentration (IC(50), determined at a m.o.i.=0.01), were added immediately after virus adsorption and removed after an incubation period of 0 (wash control), 24, 48 or 72 h. Virus breakthrough was monitored by microscopical examination of cytopathicity, viral infectivity (yield) and p24 levels in the supernatant. The presence of HIV-1(HTLV-III(B)) proviral DNA was determined after a 72-h incubation period. None of the antiviral drugs studied was able to prevent resumption of viral growth after removal of the compound. Tenofovir, lamivudine and the NNRTIs nevirapine, delavirdine and loviride, at 500 times their respective IC(50), were able to delay viral breakthrough for approximately 2-3 days. The NRTI zidovudine and the PIs saquinavir, indinavir and ritonavir, under the same conditions, were not able to delay viral breakthrough at all. Virus recovered upon treatment proved as sensitive to the anti-HIV drugs as wild-type virus. Our results suggest that viral replication at the cellular level was not completely inhibited by drug monotherapy. Consequently, virus rebounded when drug therapy stopped. In conclusion, our findings suggest that drug holidays would result in viral breakthrough, even after virus replication has been previously suppressed by adequate drug levels.