Despite worldwide eradication of naturally occurring variola virus, smallpox remains a potential threat to both civilian and military populations. New, safe smallpox vaccines are being developed, and there is an urgent need for methods to evaluate vaccine efficacy after immunization. Here we report the identification of an immunodominant HLA-A*0201-restricted epitope that is recognized by cytotoxic CD8(+) T cells and conserved among Orthopoxvirus species including variola virus. This finding has permitted analysis and monitoring of epitope-specific T cell responses after immunization and demonstration of the identified T cell specificity in an A*0201-positive human donor. Vaccination of transgenic mice allowed us to compare the immunogenicity of several vaccinia viruses including highly attenuated, replication-deficient modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA). MVA vaccines elicited levels of CD8(+) T cell responses that were comparable to those induced by the replication-competent vaccinia virus strains. Finally, we demonstrate that MVA vaccination is fully protective against a lethal respiratory challenge with virulent vaccinia virus strain Western Reserve. Our data provide a basis to rationally estimate immunogenicity of safe, second-generation poxvirus vaccines and suggest that MVA may be a suitable candidate.