Clarithromycin was administered to nine previously untreated lepromatous leprosy patients. Patients received two 1,500-mg doses on the first day, followed by 7 days of no treatment, in order to evaluate the potential efficacy of intermittent therapy. Patients then received 1,000 mg daily for 2 weeks followed by 500 mg daily for 9 weeks. The efficacy of therapy was monitored clinically, by changes in morphological index, mouse footpad infectivity, and radiorespirometric activity of Mycobacterium leprae obtained from serial biopsies and by serum levels of phenolic glycolipid I. Clarithromycin was well tolerated, with only minor side effects noted in two patients. Most patients showed reductions in morphological index and radiorespirometry 1 week after the first two doses. Within 3 weeks of starting treatment (total of 17 g of clarithromycin), biopsy-derived M. leprae specimens from all patients had a morphological index of zero, were noninfectious for mice, and had less than 1% of the radiorespirometric activity of pretreatment specimens. Reductions in serum phenolic glycolipid I levels were observed for most patients at 3 weeks. Significant clinical improvement was evident after 4 weeks of treatment. All analyses indicate that clarithromycin is rapidly bactericidal for M. leprae in humans.