Real-time modelling of a pandemic influenza outbreak

Paul J. Birrell, Richard G. Pebody, André Charlett, Xu Sheng Zhang, Daniela De Angelis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Real-time modelling is an essential component of the public health response to an outbreak of pandemic influenza in the UK. A model for epidemic reconstruction based on realistic epidemic surveillance data has been developed, but this model needs enhancing to provide spatially disaggregated epidemic estimates while ensuring that real-time implementation is feasible. Objectives: To advance state-of-the-art real-time pandemic modelling by (1) developing an existing epidemic model to capture spatial variation in transmission, (2) devising efficient computational algorithms for the provision of timely statistical analysis and (3) incorporating the above into freely available software. Methods: Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampling was used to derive Bayesian statistical inference using 2009 pandemic data from two candidate modelling approaches: (1) a parallel-region (PR) approach, splitting the pandemic into non-interacting epidemics occurring in spatially disjoint regions; and (2) a meta-region (MR) approach, treating the country as a single meta-population with long-range contact rates informed by census data on commuting. Model discrimination is performed through posterior mean deviance statistics alongside more practical considerations. In a real-time context, the use of sequential Monte Carlo (SMC) algorithms to carry out real-time analyses is investigated as an alternative to MCMC using simulated data designed to sternly test both algorithms. SMC-derived analyses are compared with ‘gold-standard’ MCMC-derived inferences in terms of estimation quality and computational burden. Results: The PR approach provides a better and more timely fit to the epidemic data. Estimates of pandemic quantities of interest are consistent across approaches and, in the PR approach, across regions (e.g. R0 is consistently estimated to be 1.76-1.80, dropping by 43-50% during an over-summer school holiday). A SMC approach was developed, which required some tailoring to tackle a sudden ‘shock’ in the data resulting from a pandemic intervention. This semi-automated SMC algorithm outperforms MCMC, in terms of both precision of estimates and their timely provision. Software implementing all findings has been developed and installed within Public Health England (PHE), with key staff trained in its use. Limitations: The PR model lacks the predictive power to forecast the spread of infection in the early stages of a pandemic, whereas the MR model may be limited by its dependence on commuting data to describe transmission routes. As demand for resources increases in a severe pandemic, data from general practices and on hospitalisations may become unreliable or biased. The SMC algorithm developed is semi-automated; therefore, some statistical literacy is required to achieve optimal performance. Conclusions: Following the objectives, this study found that timely, spatially disaggregate, real-time pandemic inference is feasible, and a system that assumes data as per pandemic preparedness plans has been developed for rapid implementation. Future work recommendations: Modelling studies investigating the impact of pandemic interventions (e.g. vaccination and school closure); the utility of alternative data sources (e.g. internet searches) to augment traditional surveillance; and the correct handling of test sensitivity and specificity in serological data, propagating this uncertainty into the real-time modelling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-118
Number of pages118
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number58
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017

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© NETSCC 2017.


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