Using a sensitive infant mouse bioassay to detect infectious virus, the pattern of mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) JHM dissemination in blood and other tissues was examined during the first 5 days following intranasal inoculation. MHV replicated in nasal turbinates of both susceptible BALB and resistant SJL mice from days 1 through 5, but BALB mice had higher titers on days 1 and 2. Viremia was detectable on days 1 through 5 in BALB mice, but only on days 3 and 5 in SJL mice. Transient virus replication occurred in the lungs of both mouse genotypes at 1 and 2 days, then ceased. This correlated with more consistently demonstrable virus in blood collected from the left atrium of the heart, compared to jugular vein, portal vein and right atrial blood. Virus was associated equally with the plasma and cellular fractions of blood on day 3, but was primarily in the buffy coat of the cellular fraction on day 5. Interferon-alpha/beta was detected in serum and spleen, but not liver or brain of BALB mice or in any tissue of SJL mice. BALB serum and spleen interferon was first detected at 36 h, peaked between 48 and 72 h, and was undetectable by 108 h. The distribution of virus in nose, cervical, axillary and mesenteric lymph nodes, spleen, Peyer's patch, thymus, bone marrow and liver was examined at 1, 2, and 3 days. The resulting pattern suggested lymphatic spread of virus to cervical lymph node and mesenteric lymph node as pathways of dissemination in addition to viremia.