More sensitive assays for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) RNA are needed to detect, quantify, and characterize persistent viremia in patients who are receiving antiretroviral therapy and whose plasma HIV-1 RNA levels are suppressed to less than 50 to 75 copies/ml. We therefore developed an internally controlled real-time reverse transcriptase-initiated PCR assay that quantifies HIV-1 RNA concentrations down to 1 copy per ml of plasma. This assay with single-copy sensitivity (the single-copy assay) generates a reproducible linear regression plot of input copy number versus threshold cycle by using HIV-1 RNA transcripts at copy numbers ranging from 1 to 10(6) per reaction mixture. The single-copy assay was compared to the ultrasensitive AMPLICOR HIV-1 MONITOR assay and a more sensitive modification of the ultrasensitive assay by repeatedly testing a low-copy-number panel containing 200 to 0.781 copies of HIV-1 RNA per ml of plasma. This comparison showed that the single-copy assay had a greater sensitivity than the other assays and was the only assay that detected HIV-1 RNA at levels as low as 0.781 copies/ml. Testing of plasma samples from 15 patients who were receiving antiretroviral therapy and who had <75 HIV-1 RNA copies/ml revealed persistent viremia in all 15 patients, with HIV-1 RNA levels ranging from 1 to 32 copies/ml (median, 13 copies/ml). The greater sensitivity of the single-copy assay should allow better characterization of persistent viremia in patients who are receiving antiretroviral therapy and whose HIV-1 RNA levels are suppressed to below the detection limits of present assays.