Penn State Study: Leaky Vaccines Support Evolution of More-Virulent Variants (2015)
Just as antibiotics breed resistance in bacteria, vaccines can incite changes that enable diseases to escape their control.
A vaccine is a novel selection pressure placed on a pathogen, and if the vaccine does not eradicate its target completely, then the remaining pathogens with the greatest fitness — those able to survive, somehow, in an immunized world — will become more common.
One can think about vaccination as a kind of sieve, argues Troy Day, a mathematical evolutionary biologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.
This sieve prevents many pathogens from passing through and surviving, but if a few squeeze by, those in that nonrandom sample will preferentially survive, replicate and ultimately shift the composition of the pathogen population.
The ones squeezing through might be escape mutants with genetic differences that allow them to shrug off or hide from vaccine-primed antibodies.
Most of the vaccines we get in childhood prevent pathogens from replicating inside us and thereby also prevent us from transmitting the infections to others.
But scientists have so far been unable to make these kinds of sterilizing vaccines for complicated pathogens like HIV, anthrax and malaria.
To conquer these diseases, some researchers have been developing immunizations that prevent disease without actually preventing infections — what are called “leaky” vaccines. And these new vaccines may incite a different, and potentially scarier, kind of microbial evolution.
The problem with leaky vaccines, Read says, is that they enable pathogens to replicate unchecked while also protecting hosts from illness and death, thereby removing the costs associated with increased virulence.
Over time, then, in a world of leaky vaccinations, a pathogen might evolve to become deadlier to unvaccinated hosts because it can reap the benefits of virulence without the costs — much as Marek’s disease has slowly become more lethal to unvaccinated chickens.
This virulence can also cause the vaccine to start failing by causing illness in vaccinated hosts.