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A previous study (Carman, W. F., A. R. Zanetti, P. Karayiannis, J. A. Waters, G. Manzillo, E. Tanzi, A. J. Zuckerman, and H. C. Thomas. 1990. Lancet. 336:325-329) demonstrated a variant hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) in a vaccinated child born to a hepatitis B virus-infected mother. A substitution of arginine for glycine at amino acid 145 in HBsAg was observed. In this study the effect of this substitution on the common "a" determinant of this protein, against which protective immunity is directed, is investigated. Using recombinant HBsAg with and without the amino acid substitution, the binding of monoclonal antibodies that recognize different epitopes of the "a" determinant, was shown to be destroyed by the presence of arginine at amino acid 145. In convalescent and vaccinee sera, antibody binding to HBsAg was not inhibited by the variant HBsAg. Immunization with the variant HBsAg, although eliciting a high titer antibody that recognized the variant, produced a low titer of antibody recognizing the native protein. Studies in mice demonstrate that the immunogenicity of the variant protein is also substantially altered. The data presented here demonstrate that this variant evades the known protective anti-HBs response and lends support to the suggestion that this mutation arose as the result of immune pressure.