The protective efficacy of anti-Sendai virus IgA was compared to that of IgG after topical application of monoclonal antibodies (MAb) to the respiratory tract of mice. BALB/c mice were passively intranasally immunized with 50 microliters ascites containing equivalent ELISA titers of MAb 1 h before and 4 and 24 h after intranasal challenge with Sendai virus. Lung viral titers were determined by plaque assay 3 days following challenge. In most instances IgA MAb afforded equivalent protection to IgG MAb in that there was no significant difference in virus recovery from the lungs of animals treated with either IgA or IgG MAb, including subclasses of IgG. When IgA MAb was fractionated into monomers and oligomers, there was no inherent advantage to the oligomeric form with respect to passive protection against viral challenge. The data indicate that IgA and IgG antibodies are equally efficacious in protecting the airways from viral infection. The experiments suggest that the advantage of IgA for protecting mucosal surfaces, such as the respiratory tract, relates to the presence of a specialized mechanism for transporting oligomeric IgA across epithelial surfaces. The results also support the rationale for active mucosal immunization protocols designed to generate an IgA response.