A general framework for modelling the impact of co-infections on pathogen evolution

Mary Bushman and Rustom Antia

Royal Society Interface

June 26, 2019


Theoretical models suggest that mixed-strain infections, or co-infections, are an important driver of pathogen evolution. However, the within-host dynamics of co-infections vary enormously, which complicates efforts to develop a general understanding of how co-infections affect evolution. Here, we develop a general framework which condenses the within-host dynamics of co-infections into a few key outcomes, the most important of which is the overall R0 of the co-infection. Similar to how fitness is determined by two different alleles in a heterozygote, the R0 of a co-infection is a product of the R0 values of the co-infecting strains, shaped by the interaction of those strains at the within-host level. Extending the analogy, we propose that the overall R0 reflects the dominance of the co-infecting strains, and that the ability of a mutant strain to invade a population is a function of its dominance in co-infections. To illustrate the utility of these concepts, we use a within-host model to show how dominance arises from the within-host dynamics of a co-infection, and then use an epidemiological model to demonstrate that dominance is a robust predictor of the ability of a mutant strain to save a maladapted wild-type strain from extinction (evolutionary emergence).