Disease-causing pathogens are evolving to resist vaccines in much the same manner as bacteria evolves to resist antibiotics, according to researchers, who warn that the “mutant super strains” of diseases caused by vaccinations are “even more dangerous” than the original diseases.

Most people have heard of antibiotic resistance. Vaccine resistance, not so much. That’s because drug resistance is a huge global problem that annually kills nearly 25,000 people in the United States and in Europe, and more than twice that many in India.

Recent research suggests, however, that some pathogen populations are adapting in ways that help them survive in a vaccinated world, and that these changes come about in a variety of ways. Just as the mammal population exploded after dinosaurs went extinct because a big niche opened up for them, mutated microbes are sweeping in to take the place of competitors eliminated by vaccines.

Quanta reports: Immunization is also making once-rare or nonexistent genetic variants of pathogens more prevalent, presumably because vaccine-primed antibodies can’t as easily recognize and attack shape-shifters that look different from vaccine strains. And vaccines being developed against some of the world’s wilier pathogens — malaria, HIV, anthrax — are based on strategies that could, according to evolutionary models and lab experiments, encourage pathogens to become even more dangerous.

Evolutionary biologists aren’t surprised that this is happening. A vaccine is a novel selection pressure placed on a pathogen, and if the vaccine does not eradicate its target completely, then the remaining pathogens with the greatest fitness — those able to survive, somehow, in an immunized world — will become more common. “If you don’t have these pathogens evolving in response to vaccines,” said Paul Ewald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville, “then we really don’t understand natural selection.”



One can think about vaccination as a kind of sieve, argues Troy Day, a mathematical evolutionary biologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. This sieve prevents many pathogens from passing through and surviving, but if a few squeeze by, those in that nonrandom sample will preferentially survive, replicate and ultimately shift the composition of the pathogen population. The ones squeezing through might be escape mutants with genetic differences that allow them to shrug off or hide from vaccine-primed antibodies, or they may simply be serotypes that weren’t targeted by the vaccine in the first place, like lucky criminals whose drug dens were overlooked during a night of citywide police raids.

Either way, the vaccine quietly alters the genetic profile of the pathogen population.

The most crucial need right now is for vaccine scientists to recognize the relevance of evolutionary biology to their field. Last month, when more than 1,000 vaccine scientists gathered in Washington, D.C., at the World Vaccine Congress, the issue of vaccine-induced evolution was not the focus of any scientific sessions. Part of the problem, according to Andrew Read, a disease ecologist who directs the Pennsylvania State University Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, is that researchers are afraid: They’re nervous to talk about and call attention to potential evolutionary effects because they fear that doing so might fuel more fear and distrust of vaccines by the public.

Still, he and Kennedy feel researchers are starting to recognize the need to include evolution in the conversation. “I think the scientific community is becoming increasingly aware that vaccine resistance is a real risk,” Kennedy said.

“I think so too,” Read agreed, “but there is a long way to go.”