Unifying Epidemic Models with Mixtures

Arnab Sarker, Ali Jadbabaie, Devavrat Shah

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for a robust understanding of epidemic models. Current models of epidemics are classified as either mechanistic or non-mechanistic: mechanistic models make explicit assumptions on the dynamics of disease, whereas non-mechanistic models make assumptions on the form of observed time series. Here, we introduce a simple mixture-based model which bridges the two approaches while retaining benefits of both. The model represents time series of cases and fatalities as a mixture of Gaussian curves, providing a flexible function class to learn from data compared to traditional mechanistic models. Although the model is non-mechanistic, we show that it arises as the natural outcome of a stochastic process based on a networked SIR framework. This allows learned parameters to take on a more meaningful interpretation compared to similar non-mechanistic models, and we validate the interpretations using auxiliary mobility data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide a simple learning algorithm to identify model parameters and establish theoretical results which show the model can be efficiently learned from data. Empirically, we find the model to have low prediction error. The model is available live at covidpredictions.mit.edu. Ultimately, this allows us to systematically understand the impacts of interventions on COVID-19, which is critical in developing data-driven solutions to controlling epidemics.

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