We have developed a PCR assay that can detect a single Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) genome in the presence of 10(6) uninfected cells. Using this assay, we demonstrate that EBV persists, in the peripheral blood of all seropositive individuals tested, in CD19+, CD23-, and CD80 (B7)- B cells. We further show that the virus in these cells is latent, but readily reactivated to produce infectious immortalizing virus; therefore, these cells represent a true site of latent persistence. EBV was not significantly detected in monocytes or T cells. The frequency of infected cells in nine healthy donors varied from 23 to 625 per 10(7) B cells, but was relatively stable for each individual over the course of 2 years. We conclude that the EBV-infected cells in vivo are B cells with a nonactivated phenotype. This represents a novel form of latency in normal B cells.