The anti-viral T cell response is believed to play a central role in the pathogenesis of hepatitis C virus infection. Since chronic evolution occurs in > 50% of HCV infections, the sequential analysis of the T cell response from the early clinical stages of disease may contribute to define the features of the T cell response associated with recovery or chronic viral persistence. For this purpose, 21 subjects with acute hepatitis C virus infection were sequentially followed for an average time of 44 wk. Twelve patients normalized transaminase values that remained normal throughout the follow-up period; all but two cleared hepatitis C virus-RNA from serum. The remaining nine patients showed persistent viremia and elevated transaminases. Analysis of the peripheral blood T cell proliferative response to core, E1, E2, NS3, NS4, and NS5 recombinant antigens and synthetic peptides showed that responses to all hepatitis C virus antigens, except E1, were significantly more vigorous and more frequently detectable in patients who normalized transaminase levels than in those who did not. By sequential evaluation of the T cell response, a difference between the two groups of patients was already detectable at the very early stages of acute infection and then maintained throughout the follow-up period. The results suggest that the vigor of the T cell response during the early stages of infection may be a critical determinant of disease resolution and control of infection.