The recent discovery of long term AIDS nonprogressors who harbor nef-attenuated HIV suggests that a naturally occurring live vaccine for AIDS may already exist. Animal models have shown that a live vaccine for AIDS, attenuated in nef, is the best candidate vaccine. There are considerable risks, real and perceived, with the use of live HIV vaccines. We have introduced a conditional lethal genetic element into HIV-1 and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) molecular clones deleted in nef. The antiviral strategy we employed targets both virus replication and the survival of the infected cell. The suicide gene, herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase (tk), was expressed and maintained in HIV over long periods of time. Herpes simplex virus tk confers sensitivity to the antiviral activity of acyclic nucleosides such as ganciclovir (GCV). HIV-tk and SIV-tk replication were sensitive to GCV at subtoxic concentrations, and virus-infected cells were eliminated from tumor cell lines as well as primary cell cultures. We found the HIV-tk virus to be remarkably stable even after being cultured in media containing a low concentration of GCV and then challenged with the higher dose and that while GCV resistant escape mutants did arise, a significant fraction of the virus remained sensitive to GCV.