Several groups have shown that peripheral CD8+ lymphocytes can be infected with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), resulting in noncytopathic infection and persistent production of viral particles. We studied the ability of 3'-azido-3'-deoxythymidine (AZT) and 2',3'-dideoxyinosine (ddI) to inhibit the establishment of HIV-1 infection in CD8+ cells that were derived from cultures of peripheral blood lymphocytes exposed to both virus and drug. In situ infection of CD8+ cells was demonstrated by double flow cytometry analysis by using both anti-glycoprotein 120 (anti-gp120) and anti-CD8 monoclonal antibodies. At higher concentrations of drug (e.g., 0.4 microM AZT), the production of viral particles was inhibited for over 2 months, as assessed by p24 antigen levels in the culture medium. We also performed a time course experiment to determine whether HIV-1 infection of CD8+ cells would be affected by treatment of peripheral blood lymphocytes with AZT or ddI for different intervals following exposure to virus. Quantitative PCR revealed that 0.4 microM AZT, added as late as 24 h after infection, interfered with the formation of proviral DNA in CD8+ cells. Both HIV-1 load and the production of progeny virions by CD8+ cells, as monitored by reverse transcriptase activity in culture fluids, were inhibited by both AZT and ddI in a dose-dependent manner.