Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) is the most important infectious disease agent of pigs worldwide, causing reproductive failure in pregnant sows and respiratory problems in nursing and growing pigs. PRRSV infection is characterized by a prolonged viremia of 30 or more days and an extended persistent infection of lymphoid tissues. To better understand the immunological basis for prolonged acute and persistent PRRSV infection, we have examined the cell-mediated immune (CMI) response throughout the course of infection and compared the results to the local distribution and abundance of PRRSV in infected tissues. PRRSV-specific T cells, enumerated by gamma interferon enzyme-linked immunospot assay, did not appear until 2 weeks after PRRSV inoculation, and their abundance exhibited substantial variation over time and among animals. In all cases the T-cell response was transient. High levels of viral RNA were present in lymphoid tissues of all animals in the acute phase of infection. Viral loads were decreased 1,000-fold or more in persistent infections, with the primary sites of persistence being tonsil, sternal lymph node, and inguinal lymph node. The abundance of virus-specific T cells in either acutely or persistently infected animals was highly variable and showed no correlation to the level of virus in lymphoid tissues. No significant difference in antigen-specific T-cell abundance was observed in secondary lymphoid tissues in either acute or persistent infection except for tonsil, in which the number of responding cells was extremely low. CD4 +- and CD8+-T-cell frequencies did not change after PRRSV infection, though a decrease in γδ T cells was observed. Macrophages, the permissive cell type for PRRSV, were present in various levels in all tissue preparations and were not in proportion to local virus load. These findings indicate that a weak CMI response contributes to prolonged PRRSV infection and suggests that PRRSV suppresses T-cell recognition of infected macrophages. Thus, the slow but eventual resolution of PRRSV infection may be dependent on limiting permissive macrophages and on innate immune factors.