The ‘independent action hypothesis’ (IAH) states that each pathogen individual has a non-zero probability of causing host death and that pathogen individuals act independently. IAH has not been rigorously tested. In this paper, we (i) develop a probabilistic framework for testing IAH and (ii) demonstrate that, in two out of the six virus–insect pathosystems tested, IAH is supported by the data. We first show that IAH inextricably links host survivorship to the number of infecting pathogen individuals, and develop a model to predict the frequency of single- and dual-genotype infections when a host is challenged with a mixture of two genotypes. Model predictions were tested using genetically marked, near-identical baculovirus genotypes, and insect larvae from three host species differing in susceptibility. Observations in early-instar larvae of two susceptible host species support IAH, but observations in late-instar larvae of susceptible host species and larvae of a less susceptible host species were not in agreement with IAH. Hence the model is experimentally supported only in pathosystems in which the host is highly susceptible. We provide, to our knowledge, the first qualitative experimental evidence that, in such pathosystems, the action of a single virion is sufficient to cause disease.