This study was performed to test the hypothesis that cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) selection of hepatitis C virus (HCV) escape variants plays a role in HCV persistence. The peripheral blood CTL responsiveness of patients with well-established chronic hepatitis C to a panel of 10 prototype HCV peptides (genotype 1a) was compared with the corresponding sequences encoded by the infecting viruses in each patient. Variant viral peptide sequences were threefold more frequent in the presence of a CTL response than in its absence, and CTL responses were detected nearly twice as often in association with variant rather than with prototype viral peptide sequences. Furthermore, over half of the patients were infected with potential CTL escape variants that contained nonimmunogenic and noncross-reactive variant peptides many of which displayed reduced HLA-binding affinity. Surprisingly, follow up analysis over a period of up to 46 mo revealed that, in contrast to the relatively high frequency of escape variants initially observed, the subsequent emergence rate of CTL escape variants was very low. Interestingly, the one escape variant that was detected proved to be a CTL antagonist. Collectively, these observations suggest that CTL selection of epitope variants may have occurred in these patients before their entrance into the study and that it may have played a role in HCV persistence. The low apparent rate of ongoing CTL selection in chronically infected patients, however, suggests that if CTL escape occurs during HCV infection it is probably an early event.