The importance of vaccinated individuals to population-level evolution of pathogens
Virus evolution shapes the epidemiological patterns of infectious disease, particularly via evasion of population immunity. At the individual level, host immunity itself may drive viral evolution towards antigenic escape. Using compartmental SIR-style models with imperfect vaccination, we allow for the probability of immune escape to differ in vaccinated and unvaccinated hosts. As the relative contribution to selection in these different hosts varies, the overall effect of vaccination on the antigenic escape pressure at the population level changes.
We find that this relative contribution to escape is important for understanding the effects of vaccination on the escape pressure and we draw out some fairly general patterns. If vaccinated hosts do not contribute much more than unvaccinated hosts to the escape pressure, then increasing vaccination always reduces the overall escape pressure. In contrast, if vaccinated hosts contribute significantly more than unvaccinated hosts to the population level escape pressure, then the escape pressure is maximised for intermediate vaccination levels.
We also find that these results depend on the vaccine efficacy against transmission, particularly through the partial protection against infection. This work highlights the potential value of understanding better how the contribution to antigenic escape pressure depends on individual host immunity.