E & E Professor Sarah Cobey's lab has a new preprint out, co-authored by Professor Cobey and lab research scientist Lauren McGough. They found that strong immune memory biases may make influenza, SARS-CoV-2, and other pathogens more likely to diversify, in contrast to prevailing theory that ignores these biases.
Many pathogens evolve to escape immunity, yet it remains difficult to predict whether immune pressure will lead to diversification, serial replacement of one variant by another, or more complex patterns. Pathogen strain dynamics are mediated by cross-protective immunity, whereby exposure to one strain partially protects against infection by antigenically diverged strains. There is growing evidence that this protection is influenced by early exposures, a phenomenon referred to as original antigenic sin (OAS) or imprinting. In this paper, we derive new constraints on the emergence of the pattern of successive strain replacements demonstrated by influenza, SARS-CoV-2, seasonal coronaviruses, and other pathogens. We find that OAS implies that the limited diversity characteristic of successive strain replacement can only be maintained if R0 is less than a threshold set by the characteristic antigenic distances for cross-protection and for the creation of new immune memory. This bound implies a “speed limit” on the evolution of new strains and a minimum variance of the distribution of infecting strains in antigenic space at any time. To carry out this analysis, we develop a theoretical model of pathogen evolution in antigenic space that implements OAS by decoupling the antigenic distances required for protection from infection and strain-specific memory creation. Our results demonstrate that OAS can play an integral role in the emergence of strain structure from host immune dynamics, preventing highly transmissible pathogens from maintaining serial strain replacement without diversification.