Tradeoff between speed and reproductive number in pathogen evolution

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The rapid succession of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emphasizes the need to understand the factors driving pathogen evolution. Here, we investigate a possible tradeoff between the rate of progression of a disease and its reproductive number. Using an SEIR framework, we show that in the exponential growth phase of an epidemic, there is an optimal disease duration that balances the advantage of a fast disease progression with that of causing many secondary infections. This result offers one possible explanation for the ever shorter generation times of novel variants of SARS-CoV-2, as it progressed from the original strain to the Alpha, Delta, and, from late 2021 onwards, to several Omicron variant subtypes. In the endemic state, the optimum disappears and longer disease duration becomes advantageous for the pathogen. However, selection pressures depend on context: mitigation strategies such as quarantine of infected individuals may slow down the evolution towards longer-lasting, more infectious variants. This work then suggests that, in the future, the trend towards shorter generation times may reverse, and SARS-CoV-2 may instead evolve towards longer-lasting variants.

TidsskriftPhysical Review Research
Udgave nummer2
StatusUdgivet - apr. 2023

Bibliografisk note

Funding Information:
K.S. and A.E. have received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 740704). B.F.N. received funding from the Carlsberg Foundation under its Semper Ardens programme (Grant No. CF20-0046), and A.E. received funding from NordForsk under the Nordic Programme for Interdisciplinary Research (Grant No. 104910). In addition, this work was supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation (Grant No. NNF21OC0068775).

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