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Avoidable errors in the modelling of outbreaks of emerging pathogens,

with special reference to Ebola


The success of model-based policy in response to outbreaks of bovine spongiform

encephelopathy and

foot-and-mouth disease established the utility of

scientifically informed disease transmission models as tools in a comprehensive

strategy for mitigating emerging epidemics. Increasingly, the expectation is that

reliable forecasts will be available in real time. Recent examples in which

model-based forecasts were produced within weeks of the index case include severe

acute respiratory syndrome (SARS;), pandemic H1N1

influenza, cholera in Haiti

and Zimbabwe, Middle East

respiratory syndrome (MERS;),

and lately, Ebola virus disease (EBVD) in West Africa. In the early stages of an emerging pathogen outbreak, key unknowns

include its transmission potential, the likely magnitude and timing of the epidemic

peak, total outbreak size, and the durations of the incubation and infectious

phases. Many of these quantities can be estimated using clinical and household

transmission data, which are, by definition, rare in the early stages of such an

outbreak. Much interest, therefore, centres on estimates of these quantities from

incidence reports that accumulate as the outbreak gathers pace. Such estimates are

obtained by fitting mathematical models of disease transmission to incidence


As is always the case in the practice of confronting models with data, decisions must

be made as to the structure of fitted models and the data to which they will be fit.

Concerning the first, in view of the urgency of policy demands and paucity of

information, the simplest models are, quite reasonably, typically the first to be

employed. With even the simplest models, such as the classical

susceptible–infected–recovered (SIR) model, the choice of data to

which the model is fit can have significant implications for science and policy.

Here, we explored these issues using a combination of inference on simulated data

and on actual data from an early phase of the 2013–2015 West Africa EBVD

outbreak. We find that some of the standard choices of model and data can lead to

potentially serious errors. Since, regardless of the model choice, all model-based

conclusions hinge on the ability of the model to fit the data, we argue that it is

important to seek out evidence of model misspecification. We demonstrate an approach

based on stochastic modelling that allows straightforward diagnosis of model

misspecification and proper quantification of forecast uncertainty.

Deterministic models fit to cumulative incidence curves: a recipe for error and


An inexpensive and therefore common strategy is to formulate deterministic

transmission models and fit these to data using least squares or related methods.

These approaches seek parameters for which model trajectories pass as close to the

data as possible. Because, in such an exercise, the model itself is deterministic,

all discrepancies between model prediction and data are in effect ascribed to

measurement error. Implicitly, the method of least squares assumes that these errors

are independent and normally distributed, with a constant variance. This assumption

can be replaced without difficulty by more realistic assumptions of non-normal

errors and, in particular, an error variance that depends on the mean. As for the

data to be fit, many have opted to fit model trajectories to cumulative case counts.

The incompatibility of this choice with the assumptions of the statistical error

model has been pointed out previously [11–13]. In

particular, the validity of the statistical estimation procedure hinges on the

independence of sequential measurement errors, which is clearly violated when

observations are accumulated through time (see electronic supplementary material,

appendix B). To explore the impact of this violation on inferences and projections,

we performed a simulation study in which we generated data using a stochastic model,

then fit the corresponding deterministic model to both raw and cumulative incidence

curves. We generated 500 sets of simulated data at each of three different levels of

measurement noise. For each dataset, we estimated model parameters, including

transmission potential (as quantified by the basic reproduction number,

R0) and observation error overdispersion (as

quantified by the negative binomial overdispersion parameter, k).

Full details of the data generation and fitting procedures are given in electronic

supplementary material, appendix A. The resulting parameter estimates are shown in

figure 1.

Recognizing that quantification of uncertainty is prerequisite to reliable

forecasting, we computed parameter estimate confidence intervals and investigated

their accuracy. Figure 1a shows that, in estimating

R0, one finds considerable error but little evidence

for bias, whether raw or cumulative incidence data are used. Although in general one

expects that violation of model assumptions will introduce some degree of bias, in

this case since both the raw and cumulative incidence curves generically grow

exponentially at a rate determined by R0, estimates of

this parameter are fairly accurate, on average, when data are

drawn, as here, from the early phase of an outbreak. Figure 1b is the

corresponding plot of estimated overdispersion of measurement noise. Using the raw

incidence data, one recovers the true observation variability. When fitted to

cumulative data, however, the estimates display extreme bias: far less measurement

noise is needed to explain the relatively smooth cumulative incidence. The data

superficially appear to be in very good agreement with the model.

To quantify the uncertainty in the parameter estimates, we examined the confidence

intervals. The nominal 99% profile-likelihood confidence interval widths for

R0 are shown in figure 1c. When the model is fit to

the simulated data, increasing levels of measurement error lead to increased

variance in the estimates of R0. However, the confidence

interval widths are far smaller when the cumulative data are used, superficially

suggesting a higher degree of precision. This apparent precision is an illusion,

however, as figure

1d shows. This figure plots the achieved coverage

(probability that the true parameter value lies within the estimated confidence

interval) as a function of the magnitude of measurement error and the choice of data

fitted. Given that the nominal confidence level here is 99%, it is disturbing

that the true coverage achieved is closer to 25% when cumulative data are


When a deterministic model is fit to cumulative incidence data, the net result is a

potentially quite over-optimistic estimate of precision, for three reasons. First,

failure to account for the non-independence of successive measurement errors leads

to an underestimate of parameter uncertainty (figure 1c). Second, as seen in

figure 1b, the

variance of measurement noise will be substantially underestimated. Finally, because

the model ignores environmental and demographic stochasticity—treating the

unfolding outbreak as a deterministic process—forecast uncertainty will grow

unrealistically slowly with the forecast horizon. We elaborate on the last point in


Stochastic models fit to raw incidence data: feasible and transparent

The incorporation of demographic and/or environmental stochastic processes into

models allows, on the one hand, better fits to the trends and variability in data

and, on the other, improved ability to diagnose lack of model fit. We formulated a stochastic

version of the susceptible–exposed–infectious–recovered (SEIR)

model as a partially observed Markov process and fit it to actual data from an early

phase of the 2013–2015 West Africa EBVD outbreak. We estimated parameters by

maximum likelihood, using sequential Monte Carlo to compute the likelihood and

iterated filtering to maximize it over unknown parameters. See electronic supplementary material,

appendix B for details.

Figure 2 shows likelihood

profiles over R0 for country-level data from Guinea,

Liberia and Sierra Leone. We also wanted to explore the potential for biases

associated with spatial aggregation of the data. Hence, we fit our models to

regional data, encompassing all reported cases from the three West African countries

just mentioned. In line with the lessons of figure 1c, estimated confidence

intervals are narrower when the cumulative reports are used. The

‘true’ parameters are, of course, unknown, but, as in the earlier

example, this higher precision is probably illusory. The somewhat, but not

dramatically, larger confidence intervals that come with adherence to the

independent-errors assumption (i.e. with the use of raw incidence data) lead to a

quite substantial increase in forecast uncertainty, as we shall see. Finally, the

ease with which the stochastic model was fit and likelihood profiles computed

testifies to the fact that, in the case of outbreaks of emerging infectious

diseases, it is not particularly difficult or time-consuming to work with stochastic


We took advantage of the stochastic model formulation to diagnose the fidelity of

model to the data. To do so, we simulated 10 realizations of the fitted model; the

results are plotted in figure 3.

While the overall trends appear similar, the model simulations display greater

variability at high frequencies than do the data. To quantify this impression, we

computed the correlation between cases at weeks t and

t – 1 (i.e. the autocorrelation function at lag one

week, ACF(1)) for both model simulations and data. For Guinea, Liberia, and the

region as a whole (‘West Africa’), the observed ACF(1) lies in the

extreme right tail of the model-simulated distribution, confirming our suspicion.

For Sierra Leone, the disagreement between fitted model and data is not as great, at

least as measured by this criterion. These diagnostics caution against the

interpretation of the outbreaks in Guinea and Liberia as simple instances of SEIR

dynamics, and call for a degree of scepticism in inferences and forecasts based on

this model. On the other hand, the Sierra Leone epidemic does appear, by this single

metric, to better conform to the SEIR assumptions when the data are aggregated to

the country level.

Figure 4 suggests why the

present Ebola outbreak might not be adequately described by the well-mixed dynamics

of the SEIR model. The erratically fluctuating mosaic of localized hotspots suggests

spatial heterogeneity in transmission, at odds with the model's assumption of

mass action. As an aside, this heterogeneity hints at control measures beyond the

purview of the SEIR model. While the latter might provide more or less sound

guidance with respect to eventual overall magnitude of the outbreak and associated

demands for hospital beds, treatment centres, future vaccine coverage, etc., the

former points to the potential efficacy of movement restrictions and spatial

coordination of control measures.


To summarize, we have here shown that the frequently adopted approach of fitting

deterministic models to cumulative incidence data can lead to bias and pronounced

underestimation of the uncertainty associated with model parameters. Not

surprisingly, forecasts based on such approaches are similarly plagued by

difficult-to-diagnose overconfidence as well as bias. We illustrated this using the

SEIR model—in its deterministic and stochastic incarnations—fit to

data from the current West Africa EBVD outbreak. Emphatically, we do not here assert

that the SEIR model adequately captures those features of the epidemic needed to

make accurate forecasts. Indeed, when more severe diagnostic tests are applied

(electronic supplementary material, figure B1), it seems less plausible that the

Sierra Leone data appear are a sample from the model distribution. Moreover, we have

side-stepped important issues of identifiability of key parameters such as

route-specific transmissibility, asymptomatic ratio and effective infectious period.

Rather, we have purposefully oversimplified, both to better reflect modelling

choices often made in the early days of an outbreak and to better focus on issues of

statistical practice in the context of quantities of immediate and obvious public

health importance, particularly the basic reproduction number and predicted outbreak

trajectory. Figure 5 shows

projected incidence of EBVD in Sierra Leone under both the deterministic model fit

to cumulative incidence data (in red) and the stochastic model fit to raw incidence

data (in blue). The shaded ribbons indicate forecast uncertainty. In the

deterministic case, the latter is due to the combined effects of estimation error

and measurement noise. As we showed above, the first contribution is unrealistically

low because serial autocorrelation among measurement errors have not been properly

accounted for. The second contribution is also underestimated because of the

smoothing effect of data accumulation. Finally, because the model ignores all

process noise, it unrealistically lacks dynamic growth of forecast uncertainty. By

contrast, the stochastic model fitted to the raw incidence data show much greater

levels of uncertainty. Because measurement errors have been properly accounted for,

confidence intervals more accurately reflect true uncertainty in model parameters.

Because the model accounts for process noise, uncertainty expands with the forecast

horizon. Finally, we recall once again that, because the process noise terms can to

some degree compensate for model misspecification, it was possible to diagnose the

latter, thus obtaining some additional qualitative appreciation of the uncertainty

owing to this factor.

The increasingly high expectations placed on models as tools for public policy put an

ever higher premium on the reliability of model predictions, and therefore on the

need for accurate quantification of the associated uncertainty. The relentless

trade-off between timeliness and reliability has with technological advance shifted

steadily in favour of more complex and realistic models. Because stochastic models

with greater realism, flexibility and transparency can be routinely and

straightforwardly fit to outbreak data, there is less and less scope for older, less

reliable and more opaque methods. In particular, the practices of fitting

deterministic models and fitting models to cumulative case report data are

prejudicial to accuracy and can no longer be justified on pragmatic grounds. We

propose the following principles to guide modelling responses to current and future

infectious disease outbreaks: (1) models should be fit to raw, disaggregated data whenever

possible and never to temporally accumulated data;(2) when model assumptions, such as independence of errors, must

be violated, careful checks for the effects of such violations should be

performed;(3) forecasts based on deterministic models, being by nature

incapable of accurately communicating uncertainty, should be avoided;

and(4) stochastic models should be preferred to deterministic models

in most circumstances because they afford improved accounting for real

variability and increased opportunity for quantifying uncertainty.

Post hoc comparison of simulated and actual data is

a powerful and general procedure that can be used to distinguish model

misspecification from real stochasticity. In closing, we are troubled that screening for lack of model fit is not a

completely standard part of modelling protocol. At best, this represents a missed

opportunity, as discrepancies between the data and off-the-shelf models may suggest

effective control measures. At worst, this can lead to severely biased estimates

and, worryingly, overly confident conclusions. Fortunately, effective techniques

exist by which such errors can be diagnosed and avoided, even in circumstances

demanding great expedition.


Weekly case reports in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were digitized from the

WHO situation report dated from 1 October 2014 ( (figure 3). To compare our

predictions to those of previous reports, we also aggregated those data to form a

regional epidemic curve for ‘West Africa’. In Guinea, this

outbreak was taken to have started in the week ending 5 January 2014 and in

Sierra Leone in that ending 8 June 2014. In Liberia, the outbreak was notified

to WHO on 31 March 2014 (,

but few cases were reported until June; therefore, the week ending 1 June was

deemed the start of the Liberian outbreak for simulation purposes. The data in

figure 4 was downloaded

from the repository maintained by C. M. Rivers ( and ultimately derived from

reports by the health ministries of the republics of Guinea, Sierra Leone and


Model formulation

The models used were variants on the basic SEIR model (figure 6), using the method of stages to allow

for a more realistic (Erlang) distribution of the incubation period. The equations of the deterministic variant


Here, R0 represents the basic reproduction number;

1/α, the average incubation period;

m, the shape parameter for the incubation period

distribution; 1/γ, the average infectious period; and

N, the population size, assumed constant (electronic

supplementary material, table B1).

The stochastic variant was implemented as a continuous-time Markov process

approximated via a multinomial modification of the

τ-leap algorithm with a fixed time step

Δt = 10−2 week.

To complete the model specification, we model the observation process. Let


denote the total number of transitions from latent to infectious class

(Em to I) occurring between

times t1 and t2. Between

times t−Δt and

t, where Δt represents the

reporting period, we write Ht =


− Δt,t) for the complete number

of new infections during that time period. When we are fitting to cumulative

case counts, we change the definition accordingly to

Ht =


When using either type of data, we modelled the corresponding case report,

Ct, as a negative binomial:

Ct ∼


Thus, and

, where ρ is the reporting

probability and k the reporting overdispersion.

Descriptions of the methods used in the simulation study and in the model-based

inferences drawn from actual data are given in the electronic supplementary