Bovine leukemia virus (BLV) and the human T-cell leukemia viruses belong to the same subfamily of oncoviruses. Although much attention has focused on the mechanisms of cell proliferation and transformation by these viruses, experiments on the apoptotic process have yielded conflicting data in in vitro cell culture. Experimental infection of sheep with BLV proviruses offers the opportunity to analyze apoptosis in vivo. Here, we show that BLV-infected peripheral mononuclear cells, cultivated ex vivo, are protected from spontaneous programmed cell death. Moreover, the virus is able to specifically interfere with the apoptotic program of infected B lymphocytes. Strongly attenuated mutant proviruses that harbor deletions in the G4 and/or R3 genes also decrease the global susceptibility to apoptosis at levels similar to those obtained with the wild-type virus. In addition, cell culture supernatants from wild-type and mutant viruses can prevent uninfected cells from undergoing programmed cell death. These observations demonstrate that the R3 and G4 genes are not required to maintain both direct and indirect protection against apoptosis. They also imply that the level of programmed cell death observed ex vivo is independent of the amounts of proviruses in the animals. The failure of these cells to undergo apoptosis might be related to the pathogenesis induced by BLV.