A highly attenuated vaccinia virus strain, NYVAC (vP866), was derived from a plaque-cloned isolate of the Copenhagen vaccine strain by the precise deletion of 18 open reading frames (ORFs) from the viral genome. Among the ORFs deleted from NYVAC (vP866) are two genes involved in nucleotide metabolism, the thymidine kinase (ORF J2R) and the large subunit of the ribonucleotide reductase (ORF I4L); the gene encoding the viral hemagglutinin (ORF A56R); the remnant (ORF A26L) of a highly expressed gene responsible for the formation of A-type inclusion bodies; the disrupted gene (ORFs B13R/B14R) normally encoding a serine protease inhibitor; and a block of 12 ORFs bounded by two known viral host range regulatory functions (ORFs C7L through K1L). Within this block a secretory protein (ORF N1L) implicated in viral virulence and a functional complement 4b binding protein (ORF C3L) are encoded. The ORFs were deleted in a manner which prevents the synthesis of undesirable novel gene products. The attenuation characteristics of the derived NYVAC strain were compared in in vitro and in vivo studies with those of the Western Reserve (WR) laboratory strain, the New York City Board of Health vaccine strain (Wyeth), the parental plaque-cloned isolate (VC-2) of the Copenhagen vaccine strain used to derive NYVAC, and the avipox virus canarypox (ALVAC), which is naturally restricted for replication to avian species. The NYVAC strain was demonstrated to be highly attenuated by the following criteria: (a) no detectable induration or ulceration at the site of inoculation on rabbit skin; (b) rapid clearance of infectious virus from the intradermal site of inoculation on rabbit skin; (c) absence of testicular inflammation in nude mice; (d) greatly reduced virulence as demonstrated by the results of intracranial challenge of both 3-week-old or newborn mice; (e) greatly reduced pathogenicity and failure to disseminate in immunodeficient (nude or cyclophosphamide treated) mice; and (f) dramatically reduced ability to replicate on a variety of human tissue culture cells. Despite these highly attenuated characteristics, the NYVAC strain, as a vector, retains the ability to induce strong immune responses to extrinsic antigens.