The spread of cholera in the midst of an epidemic is largely driven by direct transmission from person to person, although it is well-recognized that Vibrio cholerae is also capable of growth and long-term survival in aquatic ecosystems. While prior studies have shown that aquatic reservoirs are important in the persistence of the disease on the Indian subcontinent, an epidemiological view postulating that locally evolving environmental V. cholerae contributes to outbreaks outside Asia remains debated. The single-source introduction of toxigenic V. cholerae O1 in Haiti, one of the largest outbreaks occurring this century, with 812,586 suspected cases and 9,606 deaths reported through July 2018, provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the role of aquatic reservoirs and assess bacterial transmission dynamics across environmental boundaries. To this end, we investigated the phylogeography of both clinical and aquatic toxigenic V. cholerae O1 isolates and show robust evidence of the establishment of aquatic reservoirs as well as ongoing evolution of V. cholerae isolates from aquatic sites. Novel environmental lineages emerged from sequential population bottlenecks, carrying mutations potentially involved in adaptation to the aquatic ecosystem. Based on such empirical data, we developed a mixed-transmission dynamic model of V. cholerae, where aquatic reservoirs actively contribute to genetic diversification and epidemic emergence, which underscores the complexity of transmission pathways in epidemics and endemic settings and the need for long-term investments in cholera control at both human and environmental levels.
Keywords: cholera; evolution; phylodynamics; reservoir.
Copyright © 2020 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.