The role of evolution in the emergence of infectious diseases

Nature. 2003 Dec 11;426(6967):658-61. doi: 10.1038/nature02104.


It is unclear when, where and how novel pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), monkeypox and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) will cross the barriers that separate their natural reservoirs from human populations and ignite the epidemic spread of novel infectious diseases. New pathogens are believed to emerge from animal reservoirs when ecological changes increase the pathogen's opportunities to enter the human population and to generate subsequent human-to-human transmission. Effective human-to-human transmission requires that the pathogen's basic reproductive number, R(0), should exceed one, where R(0) is the average number of secondary infections arising from one infected individual in a completely susceptible population. However, an increase in R(0), even when insufficient to generate an epidemic, nonetheless increases the number of subsequently infected individuals. Here we show that, as a consequence of this, the probability of pathogen evolution to R(0) > 1 and subsequent disease emergence can increase markedly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases / genetics
  • Communicable Diseases / transmission*
  • Ecosystem
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Probability
  • Stochastic Processes