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Keywords:

  • Failed vaccines;
  • industrialization;
  • pathogen evolution;
  • poultry disease;
  • virulence-transmission trade-off

SUMMARY

Marek’s disease virus (MDV), a commercially important disease of poultry, has become substantially more virulent over the last 60 years. This evolution was presumably a consequence of changes in virus ecology associated with the intensification of the poultry industry. Here, we assess whether vaccination or reduced host life span could have generated natural selection, which favored more virulent strains. Using previously published experimental data, we estimated viral fitness under a range of cohort durations and vaccine treatments on broiler farms. We found that viral fitness maximized at intermediate virulence, as a result of a trade-off between virulence and transmission previously reported. Our results suggest that vaccination, acting on this trade-off, could have led to the evolution of increased virulence. By keeping the host alive, vaccination prolongs infectious periods of virulent strains. Improvements in host genetics and nutrition, which reduced broiler life spans below 50 days, could have also increased the virulence of the circulating MDV strains because shortened cohort duration reduces the impact of host death on viral fitness. These results illustrate the dramatic impact anthropogenic change can potentially have on pathogen virulence.