A note on the effects of epidemic forecasts on epidemic dynamics

PeerJ. 2020 Aug 7;8:e9649. doi: 10.7717/peerj.9649. eCollection 2020.


The purpose of a forecast, in making an estimate about the future, is to give people information to act on. In the case of a coupled human system, a change in human behavior caused by the forecast can alter the course of events that were the subject of the forecast. In this context, the forecast is an integral part of the coupled human system, with two-way feedback between forecast output and human behavior. However, forecasting programs generally do not examine how the forecast might affect the system in question. This study examines how such a coupled system works using a model of viral infection-the susceptible-infected-removed (SIR) model-when the model is used in a forecasting context. Human behavior is modified by making the contact rate responsive to other dynamics, including forecasts, of the SIR system. This modification creates two-way feedback between the forecast and the infection dynamics. Results show that a faster rate of response by a population to system dynamics or forecasts leads to a significant decline in peak infections. Responding to a forecast leads to a lower infection peak than responding to current infection levels. Inaccurate forecasts can lead to either higher or lower peak infections depending on whether the forecast under-or over-estimates the peak. The direction of inaccuracy in a forecast determines whether the outcome is better or worse for the population. While work is still needed to constrain model functional forms, forecast feedback can be an important component of epidemic dynamics that should be considered in response planning.

Keywords: COVID-19; Epidemic; Forecast; Forecast feedback; Model; Reflexive prediction; SIR model.

Grant support

Support for this research came from institutional funds from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.