Antigenic evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in immunocompromised hosts

Cameron Smith, Ben Ashby

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Prolonged infections of immunocompromised individuals have been proposed as a crucial source of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 during the COVID-19 pandemic. In principle, sustained within-host antigenic evolution in immunocompromised hosts could allow novel immune escape variants to emerge more rapidly, but little is known about how and when immunocompromised hosts play a critical role in pathogen evolution. Here, we use a simple mathematical model to understand the effects of immunocompromised hosts on the emergence of immune escape variants in the presence and absence of epistasis. We show that when the pathogen does not have to cross a fitness valley for immune escape to occur (no epistasis), immunocompromised individuals have no qualitative effect on antigenic evolution (although they may accelerate immune escape if within-host evolutionary dynamics are faster in immunocompromised individuals). But if a fitness valley exists between immune escape variants at the between-host level (epistasis), then persistent infections of immunocompromised individuals allow mutations to accumulate, therefore facilitating rather than simply speeding up antigenic evolution. Our results suggest that better genomic surveillance of infected immunocompromised individuals and better global health equality, including improving access to vaccines and treatments for individuals who are immunocompromised (especially in lower- and middle-income countries), may be crucial to preventing the emergence of future immune escape variants of SARS-CoV-2.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)90-100
JournalEvolution, Medicine, and Public Health
Issue number1
Early online date11 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

CAS is funded by the Natural Environment Research 450 Council (NE/V003909/1). BA is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/N014979/1 451 and NE/V003909/1).


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