In about 30% to 40% of patients with chronic hepatitis C, treatment with recombinant interferon alfa (r-IFN alpha) causes a decrease of serum aminotransferases and hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA. The antiviral mechanism of interferon alfa (IFN alpha) in vivo is unknown. From serial measurements of serum HCV-RNA concentrations following IFN alpha induced perturbation of the balance between virus production and clearance, we obtained kinetic information on the pretreatment steady-state of HCV. In patients with chronic hepatitis C responding to IFN alpha, HCV-RNA declined exponentially with a half life of approximately 2 days. Modeling of the data predicts that in patients with chronic hepatitis C responding to IFN alpha this cytokine predominantly acts as an inhibitor of de novo infection of susceptible cells. HCV is released from infected cells with a mean half life of 2.7 +/- 1.3 days, whereas the clearance rate from serum is faster (mean half life, 0.7 +/- 0.4 days). The minimum virus production and clearance per day in patients with chronic hepatitis C was calculated to be 6.7 x 10(10) virions/d (range, 0.2 to 43.8 x 10(10) virions/d). These values showed no correlation with the HCV genotype, aminotransferase levels, or the histological activity as assessed before the administration of r-IFN alpha. Simultaneous kinetic analysis of serum aminotransferases as surrogate markers of hepatocyte integrity revealed half lifes for the release of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) from hepatocytes of 4.7 +/- 3.8 and 3.0 +/- 3.5 days, respectively. The half life data for HCV in chronically infected patients are remarkably similar to recently published data on human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) suggesting that both RNA viruses replicate continuously and highly productive in vivo. The turnover rates explain the rapid generation of viral diversity and the opportunity for viral escape phenomena from the host immune surveillance.