Ribavirin, a guanosine analogue, is a broad spectrum antiviral agent which is effective in the treatment of influenza. In this study, the effect of ribavirin on influenza virus ribonucleoprotein (RNP) synthesis and nucleotide pool sizes was simultaneously measured. Ribavirin (100 microM) reduced viral RNP synthesis 94% as measured by UTP incorporation. Intracellular GTP pools, measured by high performance liquid chromatography, were reduced approximately 45% in ribavirin treated cells, while other nucleotides remained near control values. Attempts to reverse ribavirin's inhibitory effects on viral RNP synthesis by addition of exogenous guanosine (50 microM) resulted in only a partial restoration of viral RNP synthesis, despite full restoration of the GTP pool. Dose-response experiments indicated that the GTP pool was significantly reduced (65% of control) at 25 microM ribavirin, and increasing concentrations of the drug caused only a small further reduction in the GTP pool (5-10% at 100 microM). In contrast, RNP synthesis was inhibited by 50% at 25 microM ribavirin and was further decreased to 5% of control at 100 microM ribavirin. Thus, ribavirin's antiviral activity may result from a reduction of the GTP pool size combined with direct effects on viral replicative enzymes.