Patients with advanced human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection who had p24 antigen despite treatment with zidovudine (AZT) for 4-28 months received 3 x 10(6) IU of native interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) daily for 3 months. Infectious HIV was detected in the plasma of all patients, in most cases at high titers, before IFN-alpha treatment. There was no correlation between HIV titers and p24 antigen levels. Antiviral activity, as measured by significantly decreased levels of infectious virus or p24 antigen, was observed in six of eight completely treated but in only one of nine incompletely treated patients. After termination of IFN-alpha treatment, there was a significant rise of p24 antigen levels. During IFN treatment, absolute CD4 cell counts showed a tendency toward an increased rate of decline. The side effects were unexpectedly severe. Despite its anti-HIV effect in vivo, IFN-alpha in the dosages used does not seem to be a viable additional treatment for severely immunodeficient patients in ongoing AZT therapy.