Estimating eco-epidemiological parameters in free-ranging populations can be challenging. As known individuals may be undetected during a field session, or their health status uncertain, the collected data are typically "imperfect". Multi-event capture-mark-recapture (MECMR) models constitute a substantial methodological advance by accounting for such imperfect data. In these models, animals can be "undetected" or "detected" at each time step. Detected animals can be assigned an infection state, such as "susceptible" (S), "infected" (I), or "recovered" (R), or an "unknown" (U) state, when for instance no biological sample could be collected. There may be heterogeneity in the assignment of infection states, depending on the manifestation of the disease in the host or the diagnostic method. For example, if obtaining the samples needed to prove viral infection in a detected animal is difficult, this can result in a low chance of assigning the I state. Currently, it is unknown how much uncertainty MECMR models can tolerate to provide reliable estimates of eco-epidemiological parameters and whether these parameters are sensitive to heterogeneity in the assignment of infection states. We used simulations to assess how estimates of the survival probability of individuals in different infection states and the probabilities of infection and recovery responded to (1) increasing infection state uncertainty (i.e., the proportion of U) from 20 to 90%, and (2) heterogeneity in the probability of assigning infection states. We simulated data, mimicking a highly virulent disease, and used SIR-MECMR models to quantify bias and precision. For most parameter estimates, bias increased and precision decreased gradually with state uncertainty. The probabilities of survival of I and R individuals and of detection of R individuals were very robust to increasing state uncertainty. In contrast, the probabilities of survival and detection of S individuals, and the infection and recovery probabilities showed high biases and low precisions when state uncertainty was >50%, particularly when the assignment of the S state was reduced. Considering this specific disease scenario, SIR-MECMR models are globally robust to state uncertainty and heterogeneity in state assignment, but the previously mentioned parameter estimates should be carefully interpreted if the proportion of U is high.
Keywords: SIR model; assignment probability; bias; multi-event capture-mark-recapture; partial observation; precision; simulation; state uncertainty.