The epithelial cells of the respiratory tract are the primary sites of virus replication in influenza A virus infections. We infected human alveolar epithelium-like A549 cells and fibroblast-like human fetal lung (HFL1) cells with a pathogenic influenza A virus (A/Beijing/353/89), and studied the kinetics of infection and the expression of host IFN-alpha/beta, MxA, OAS (2',5'-oligoadenylate synthetase), and HLA class I and II genes. Viral mRNA and protein synthesis was clearly seen in virus-infected lung cells. A549 and HFL1 cells produced only small amounts of IFN-alpha/beta, whereas virus-infected macrophages produced type I IFN very efficiently. The kinetics of IFN-beta gene expression in A549 cells was rapid, as shown by reverse-transcriptase PCR, and IFN-beta mRNA expression levels correlated well to the kinetics of nuclear factor-kappa B transcription factor activation. In influenza A virus-infected A549 and HFL1 cells, MxA gene induction was mediated by IFN-alpha/beta released into the cell culture supernatant, and was prevented by anti-type I IFN Abs. HLA class I Ag expression, which could be activated by IFN in noninfected A549 and HFL1 cells, was not induced in these cells by virus infection. The results suggest that type I IFN are essential for the activation of the antiviral response in lung epithelial cells.