Viral vaccines have had remarkable positive impacts on human health as well as the health of domestic animal populations. Despite impressive vaccine successes, however, many infectious diseases cannot yet be efficiently controlled or eradicated through vaccination, often because it is impossible to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population. Recent advances in molecular biology suggest that the centuries-old method of individual-based vaccine delivery may be on the cusp of a major revolution. Specifically, genetic engineering brings to life the possibility of a live, transmissible vaccine. Unfortunately, releasing a highly transmissible vaccine poses substantial evolutionary risks, including reversion to high virulence as has been documented for the oral polio vaccine. An alternative, and far safer approach, is to rely on genetically engineered and weakly transmissible vaccines that have reduced scope for evolutionary reversion. Here, we use mathematical models to evaluate the potential efficacy of such weakly transmissible vaccines. Our results demonstrate that vaccines with even a modest ability to transmit can significantly lower the incidence of infectious disease and facilitate eradication efforts. Consequently, weakly transmissible vaccines could provide an important tool for controlling infectious disease in wild and domestic animal populations and for reducing the risks of emerging infectious disease in humans.
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