The HTLV-I tax gene protein (Tax) is not packaged within the mature viral particle from which the proteins for the commercially available enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) are derived. Screening of 162 individuals within a cohort of white intravenous (IV) drug abusers, previously identified as having an increased incidence of HTLV-I infection, demonstrated that seven of them had antibodies to the HTLV-I Tax protein but tested negative in HTLV-I ELISAs and Western blots prepared from purified virion proteins. Three out of 35 individuals in other behaviorally defined high-risk groups also displayed this limited pattern of reactivity to HTLV-I proteins. The presence of the anti-HTLV- I p40/Tax antibodies was determined by radioimmunoprecipitation assay (RIPA), which also revealed low levels of anti-env reactivity. The specificity of the anti-p40 reactivity was confirmed on specific Tax ELISAs and Western blots prepared from recombinantly produced Tax. In vitro gene amplification by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to establish the presence of sequences homologous to HTLV-I proviral DNA in four/four of these HTLV-I ELISA negative, Tax ELISA/Tax western blot/RIPA positive individuals. These data suggest that the true incidence of HTLV-I infection within high-risk cohorts is greater than previously reported.