Fundamental limits on inferring epidemic resurgence in real time using effective reproduction numbers
Parag KV., Donnelly CA.
AbstractWe find that epidemic resurgence, defined as an upswing in the effective reproduction number (R) of the contagion from subcritical to supercritical values, is fundamentally difficult to detect in real time. Inherent latencies in pathogen transmission, coupled with smaller and intrinsically noisier case incidence across periods of subcritical spread, mean that resurgence cannot be reliably detected without significant delays of the order of the generation time of the disease, even when case reporting is perfect. In contrast, epidemic suppression (where R falls from supercritical to subcritical values) may be ascertained 5–10 times faster due to the naturally larger incidence at which control actions are generally applied. We prove that these innate limits on detecting resurgence only worsen when spatial or demographic heterogeneities are incorporated. Consequently, we argue that resurgence is more effectively handled proactively, potentially at the expense of false alarms. Timely responses to recrudescent infections or emerging variants of concern are more likely to be possible when policy is informed by a greater quality and diversity of surveillance data than by further optimisation of the statistical models used to process routine outbreak data.Author summaryThe timely detection of epidemic resurgence (i.e., upcoming waves of infected cases) is crucial for informing public health policy, providing valuable signals for implementing interventions and identifying emerging pathogenic variants or important population-level behavioural shifts. Increases in epidemic transmissibility, parametrised by the time-varying reproduction number, R, commonly signify resurgence. While many studies have improved computational methods for inferring R from case data, to enhance real-time resurgence detection, few have examined what limits, if any, fundamentally restrict our ability to perform this inference. We apply optimal Bayesian detection algorithms and sensitivity tests and discover that resurgent (upward) R-changes are intrinsically more difficult to detect than equivalent downward changes indicating control. This asymmetry derives from the often lower and stochastically noisier case numbers that associate with resurgence, and induces detection delays on the order of the disease generation time. We prove these delays only worsen if spatial or demographic differences in transmissibility are modelled. As these fundamental limits exist even if case data are perfect, we conclude that designing integrated surveillance systems that fuse potentially timelier data sources (e.g., wastewater) may be more important than improving R-estimation methodology and deduce that there may be merit (subject to false alarm costs) in conservative resurgence response initiatives.