de Roos, Andre M.; Qixin He and Mercedes Pascual

A hyperdiverse class of pathogens of humans and wildlife, including the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, relies on multigene families to encode antigenic variation. As a result, high (asymptomatic) prevalence is observed despite high immunity in local populations under high-transmission settings. The vast diversity of "strains" and genes encoding this variation challenges the application of established models for the population dynamics of such infectious diseases. Agent-based models have been formulated to address theory on strain coexistence and structure, but their complexity can limit application to gain insights into population dynamics. Motivated by P. falciparum malaria, we develop an alternative formulation in the form of a structured susceptible-infected-susceptible population model in continuous time, where individuals are classified not only by age, as is standard, but also by the diversity of parasites they have been exposed to and retain in their specific immune memory. We analyze the population dynamics and bifurcation structure of this system of partial-differential equations, showing the existence of alternative steady states and an associated tipping point with transmission intensity. We attribute the critical transition to the positive feedback between parasite genetic diversity and force of infection. Basins of attraction show that intervention must drastically reduce diversity to prevent a rebound to high infection levels. Results emphasize the importance of explicitly considering pathogen diversity and associated specific immune memory in the population dynamics of hyperdiverse epidemiological systems. This statement is discussed in a more general context for ecological competition systems with hyperdiverse trait spaces.