Emergent trade-offs and selection for outbreak frequency in spatial epidemics


National Academy of Sciences


Nonspatial theory on pathogen evolution generally predicts selection for maximal number of secondary infections, constrained only by supposed physiological trade-offs between pathogen infectiousness and virulence. Spread of diseases in human populations can, however, exhibit large scale patterns, underlining the need for spatially explicit approaches to pathogen evolution. Here, we show, in a spatial model where all pathogen traits are allowed to evolve independently, that evolutionary trajectories follow a single relationship between transmission and clearance. This trade-off relation is an emergent system property, as opposed to being a property of pathogen physiology, and maximizes outbreak frequency instead of the number of secondary infections. We conclude that spatial pattern formation in contact networks can act to link infectiousness and clearance during pathogen evolution in the absence of any physiological trade-off. Selection for outbreak frequency offers an explanation for the evolution of pathogens that cause mild but frequent infections.

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