To establish correlates of protective immunity during human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection, the frequencies of circulating cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) precursors (p) directed against 4 HIV-1 gene products (reverse transcriptase, gag, nef, and env) were evaluated in HIV-1-infected homosexual men who progressed to AIDS and in long-term survivors over time. For both groups, HIV-1-specific CTL responses had similar kinetics and magnitude. At maximum expansion, HIV-1-specific CTLp had a median frequency of 0.2% mononuclear cells in both progressors and long-term survivors, with peaks of 0.5% and 2%, respectively. Long-term survivors maintained the established CTLp pool and presented a persistently predominant gag-specific response. The fraction and, to a lesser extent, the frequency of gag-specific CTLp were inversely correlated with virus load. In progressors, general T cell function and measurable HIV-1-specific CTLp frequencies dropped simultaneously, suggesting a further loss of virus control due to the ensuing immunodeficiency.