This study aimed to confirm that vertical transmission of hepatitis B virus (HBV) can occur via the infected ovum. Specimens studied were obtained from discarded test-tube embryos from mothers with chronic HBV infection who had received in vitro fertilization treatment. Single-cell reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction was used to detect HBV mRNA in the embryos. HBV mRNA was detected in the cleavage embryos of patients with chronic HBV infection, with a detection rate of 13·2% (5/38). The level of serum HBV DNA was not related to the HBV mRNA positivity rates in embryos. In this study, HBV mRNA was detected in test-tube embryos from HBV-infected mothers who had received in vitro fertilization treatment. This confirms the theory of vertical transmission of HBV via the ovum, thereby providing an important theoretical basis for further study on the mechanism of HBV vertical transmission, influencing factors and blocking measures.