Plasmodium vivax is the most prevalent human malaria parasite in the Americas. Previous studies have contrasted the genetic diversity of parasite populations in the Americas with those in Asia and Oceania, concluding that New World populations exhibit low genetic diversity consistent with a recent introduction. Here we used an expanded sample of complete mitochondrial genome sequences to investigate the diversity of P. vivax in the Americas as well as in other continental populations. We show that the diversity of P. vivax in the Americas is comparable to that in Asia and Oceania, and we identify several divergent clades circulating in South America that may have resulted from independent introductions. In particular, we show that several haplotypes sampled in Venezuela and northeastern Brazil belong to a clade that diverged from the other P. vivax lineages at least 30,000 years ago, albeit not necessarily in the Americas. We propose that, unlike in Asia where human migration increases local genetic diversity, the combined effects of the geographical structure and the low incidence of vivax malaria in the Americas has resulted in patterns of low local but high regional genetic diversity. This could explain previous views that P. vivax in the Americas has low genetic diversity because these were based on studies carried out in limited areas. Further elucidation of the complex geographical pattern of P. vivax variation will be important both for diversity assessments of genes encoding candidate vaccine antigens and in the formulation of control and surveillance measures aimed at malaria elimination.
Keywords: demographic history; molecular clock; population structure.