BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Seventeen people have been exposed to a man-made rabies virus at an experimental farm 185 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, public health officials said Friday.

Studies showed they developed antibodies after they were exposed to the experimental virus during tests on 40 cattle in July and August 1986 in the town of Azul, said a statement from the Public Health and Social Welfare Ministry.

It said the tests were conducted by the Wistar Institute of Philadelphia and the Pan American Health Organization without the knowledge of Argentine officials. The ministry said public health officials stopped the program when they learned of it.

''It was noticed in an unofficial manner that there had been an experiment with the recombinant rabies vacinia virus in the experimental farm of the Pan American Center for Animal Illnesses (CEPANZO) in Azul, Buenos Aires province,'' the statement said.

Prat Gay, Argentine ambassador to the Organization of American States, presented a formal protest note to the OAS in Washington on Jan. 27, 1987, the ministry said. The Pan American Health Organization is a dependency of the OAS.

''The seriological studies carried out on the 17 people who had different grades of exposure and contact with the innoculated cattle suggest that according to the techniques utilized, they have developed antibodies against the rabies virus,'' the ministry statement said.

''To confirm these results, it's suggested that these blood studies be repeated and if possible that additional samples be obtained from the people under study.

''Initial studies indicate 18 months after the experiment began, the clinical state of health of the study group is normal.''

The ministry provided no details, except to say the people were exposed in varying degrees while working with the cattle. Twenty of the cattle were infected with the genetically altered virus and 20 were not.

It said the infected cattle were destroyed.

Dr. Carlos Malbran of the National Microbiological Institute is directing studies of the 17 people and the remaining cattle, the ministry said.