OBJECTIVE: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has for long been associated with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In this study, we investigated the levels of latent and lytic antigen EBV-specific T-cells and antibodies in SLE patients. METHODS: T cells were analyzed by flow cytometry and antibodies were analyzed by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. RESULTS: SLE patients showed a significantly reduced number of activated (CD69) T-cells upon ex vivo stimulation with EBV nuclear antigen (EBNA) 1 or EBV early antigen diffuse (EBV-EA/D) in whole blood samples compared with healthy controls. Also, a reduced number of T-cells from SLE patients were found to produce interferon-γ upon stimulation with these antigens. Importantly, responses to a superantigen were normal in SLE patients. Compared with healthy controls, SLE patients had fewer EBV-specific T-cells but higher titres of antibodies against EBV. Furthermore, an inverse correlation was revealed between the number of lytic antigen EBV-specific T-cells and disease activity of the SLE patients, with high-activity SLE patients having fewer T-cells than low-activity SLE patients. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate a limited or a defective EBV-specific T-cell response in SLE patients, which may suggest poor control of EBV infection in SLE with an immune reaction shift towards a humoral response in an attempt to control viral reactivation. A role for decreased control of EBV as a contributing agent in the development or exacerbation of SLE is proposed.