• Models/simulations;
  • mutations;
  • reproductive strategies

Viruses replicate their genomes using a variety of mechanisms, leading to different distributions of mutations among their progeny. Yet, models of viral evolution often only consider the mean mutation rate. To investigate when and how replication mechanisms impact viral evolution, we analyze the early dynamics of within-host infection for two idealized cases: when all offspring virions from an infected cell carry the same genotype, mutated or not; and when mutations occur independently across offspring virions. Other replication life histories fall between these extremes. Using branching process models, we study the probability that viral infection becomes established when mutations are lethal, and in the more general case of two strains of different fitness. For a given mean mutation rate, we show that a lineage of viruses with correlated mutations is less likely to survive than with independent mutations, but when it survives, the viral population grows faster. While this holds true for all parameter regimes, replication life history has a quantitatively significant influence on viral dynamics when stochastic effects are important and when mutations are crucial for survival—conditions typical of evolutionary escape situations.