Antibody-mediated clearance of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) from the circulation of chronically infected patients (i.e., seroconversion) is usually associated with increased HBV-specific T cell responsiveness. However, a causative link between serum HBsAg levels and impairment of intrahepatic CD8+ T cells has not been established. Here we addressed this issue by using HBV replication-competent transgenic mice that are depleted of circulating HBsAg, via either spontaneous seroconversion or therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, as recipients of HBV-specific CD8+ T cells. Surprisingly, we found that serum HBsAg clearance has only a minimal effect on the expansion of HBV-specific naive CD8+ T cells undergoing intrahepatic priming. It does not alter their propensity to become dysfunctional, nor does it enhance the capacity of IL-2–based immunotherapeutic strategies to increase their antiviral function. In summary, our results reveal that circulating HBsAg clearance does not improve HBV-specific CD8+ T cell responses in vivo and may have important implications for the treatment of chronic HBV infection.

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