The evolution of covert, silent infection as a parasite strategy

Ian Sorrell, Andrew White, Amy B. Pedersen, Rosemary S. Hails, Mike Boots

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)


Many parasites and pathogens cause silent/covert infections in addition to the more obvious infectious disease-causing pathology. Here, we consider how assumptions concerning superinfection, protection and seasonal host birth and transmission rates affect the evolution of such covert infections as a parasite strategy. Regardless of whether there is vertical infection or effects on sterility, overt infection is always disadvantageous in relatively constant host populations unless it provides protection from superinfection. If covert infections are protective, all individuals will enter the covert stage if there is enough vertical transmission, and revert to overt infections after a 'latent' period (susceptible, exposed, infected epidemiology). Seasonal variation in transmission rates selects for non-protective covert infections in relatively long-lived hosts with low birth rates typical of many mammals. Variable host population density caused by seasonal birth rates may also select for covert transmission, but in this case it is most likely in short-lived fecund hosts. The covert infections of some insects may therefore be explained by their outbreak population dynamics. However, our models consistently predict proportions of covert infection, which are lower than some of those observed in nature. Higher proportions of covert infection may occur if there is a direct link between covert infection and overt transmission success, the covert infection is protective or the covert state is the result of suppression by the host. Relatively low proportions of covert transmission may, however, be explained as a parasite strategy when transmission opportunities vary. © 2009 The Royal Society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2217-2226
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1665
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2009


  • Covert
  • Disease
  • Evolution
  • Latent
  • Model
  • Vertical transmission


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