Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The end of an expanding epidemic cannot be precisely forecast

A sobering analysis from Castro et al.:  


Susceptible–infected–removed (SIR) models and their extensions are widely used to describe the dynamics of infection spreading. Certain generic features of epidemics are well-illustrated by these models, which can be remarkably good at reproducing empirical data through suitably chosen parameters. However, this does not assure a good job anticipating the forthcoming stages of the process. To illustrate this point, we accurately describe the propagation of COVID-19 in Spain using one such model and show that predictions for its subsequent evolution are disparate, even contradictory. The future of ongoing epidemics is so sensitive to parameter values that predictions are only meaningful within a narrow time window and in probabilistic terms, much as what we are used to in weather forecasts.
Epidemic spread is characterized by exponentially growing dynamics, which are intrinsically unpredictable. The time at which the growth in the number of infected individuals halts and starts decreasing cannot be calculated with certainty before the turning point is actually attained; neither can the end of the epidemic after the turning point. A susceptible–infected–removed (SIR) model with confinement (SCIR) illustrates how lockdown measures inhibit infection spread only above a threshold that we calculate. The existence of that threshold has major effects in predictability: A Bayesian fit to the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain shows that a slowdown in the number of newly infected individuals during the expansion phase allows one to infer neither the precise position of the maximum nor whether the measures taken will bring the propagation to the inhibition regime. There is a short horizon for reliable prediction, followed by a dispersion of the possible trajectories that grows extremely fast. The impossibility to predict in the midterm is not due to wrong or incomplete data, since it persists in error-free, synthetically produced datasets and does not necessarily improve by using larger datasets. Our study warns against precise forecasts of the evolution of epidemics based on mean-field, effective, or phenomenological models and supports that only probabilities of different outcomes can be confidently given.

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