Consequences of host heterogeneity, epitope immunodominance, and immune breadth for strain competition.


Consumer-resource dynamics of hosts with their pathogens are modulated by complex interactions between various branches of hosts' immune systems and the imperfectly perceived pathogen. Multistrain SIR models tend to sweep competitive interaction terms between different pathogen strains into a single parameter representing cross-immunity. After reviewing several hypotheses about the generation of immune responses, we look into the consequences of assuming that hosts with identical immune repertoires respond to new pathogens identically. In particular, we vary the breadth of the typical immune response, or the average number of pathogen epitopes a host perceives, and the probability of perceiving a particular epitope. The latter quantity in our model is equivalent both to the degree of diversity in host responses at the population level and the relative immunodominance of different epitopes. We find that a sharp transition to strain coexistence occurs as host responses become narrow or skewed toward one epitope. Increasing the breadth of the immune response and the immunogenicity of different epitopes typically increases the range of cross-immunity values in which chaotic strain dynamics and competitive exclusion occur. Models attempting to predict the outcomes of strain competition should thus consider the potential diversity and specificity of hosts' responses to infection.

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