Tracking Disease Outbreaks from Sparse Data with Bayesian Inference


  • Bryan Wilder Harvard University
  • Michael Mina Harvard University
  • Milind Tambe Harvard University



AI Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Covid19)


The COVID-19 pandemic provides new motivation for a classic problem in epidemiology: estimating the empirical rate of transmission during an outbreak (formally, the time-varying reproduction number) from case counts. While standard methods exist, they work best at coarse-grained national or state scales with abundant data, and struggle to accommodate the partial observability and sparse data common at finer scales (e.g., individual schools or towns). For example, case counts may be sparse when only a small fraction of infections are caught by a testing program. Or, whether an infected individual tests positive may depend on the kind of test and the point in time when they are tested. We propose a Bayesian framework which accommodates partial observability in a principled manner. Our model places a Gaussian process prior over the unknown reproduction number at each time step and models observations sampled from the distribution of a specific testing program. For example, our framework can accommodate a variety of kinds of tests (viral RNA, antibody, antigen, etc.) and sampling schemes (e.g., longitudinal or cross-sectional screening). Inference in this framework is complicated by the presence of tens or hundreds of thousands of discrete latent variables. To address this challenge, we propose an efficient stochastic variational inference method which relies on a novel gradient estimator for the variational objective. Experimental results for an example motivated by COVID-19 show that our method produces an accurate and well-calibrated posterior, while standard methods for estimating the reproduction number can fail badly.




How to Cite

Wilder, B., Mina, M., & Tambe, M. (2021). Tracking Disease Outbreaks from Sparse Data with Bayesian Inference. Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 35(6), 4883-4891.



AAAI Technical Track Focus Area on AI Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic