Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) Env-, Gag-, Pol-, Nef-, and Tat-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) activities were quantitated temporally in five patients with symptomatic primary HIV-1 infection. A dominant CD8(+)-mediated, major histocompatibility complex class I-restricted CTL response to the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein, gp160, was noted in four of the five patients studied. The level of HIV-1-specific CTL activity in the five patients paralleled the efficiency of control of primary viremia. Patients who mounted strong gp160-specific CTL responses showed rapid reduction of acute plasma viremia and antigenemia, while in contrast, primary viremia and antigenemia were poorly controlled in patients in whom virus-specific CTL activity was low or undetectable. These results suggest that HIV-1-specific CTL activity is a major component of the host immune response associated with the control of virus replication following primary HIV-1 infection and have important implications for the design of antiviral vaccines.