Control fast or control smart: When should invading pathogens be controlled?

04 Apr 2018

The intuitive response to an invading pathogen is to start disease management as rapidly as possible, since this would be expected to minimise the future impacts of disease. However, since more spread data become available as an outbreak unfolds, processes underpinning pathogen transmission can almost always be characterised more precisely later in epidemics. This allows the future progression of any outbreak to be forecast more accurately, and so enables control interventions to be targeted more precisely. There is also the chance that the outbreak might die out without any intervention whatsoever, making prophylactic control unnecessary. Optimal decision-making involves continuously balancing these potential benefits of waiting against the possible costs of further spread. We introduce a generic, extensible data-driven algorithm based on parameter estimation and outbreak simulation for making decisions in real-time concerning when and how to control an invading pathogen. The Control Smart Algorithm (CSA) resolves the trade-off between the competing advantages of controlling as soon as possible and controlling later when more information has become available. We show-using a generic mathematical model representing the transmission of a pathogen of agricultural animals or plants through a population of farms or fields-how the CSA allows the timing and level of deployment of vaccination or chemical control to be optimised. In particular, the algorithm outperforms simpler strategies such as intervening when the outbreak size reaches a pre-specified threshold, or controlling when the outbreak has persisted for a threshold length of time. This remains the case even if the simpler methods are fully optimised in advance. Our work highlights the potential benefits of giving careful consideration to the question of when to start disease management during emerging outbreaks, and provides a concrete framework to allow policy-makers to make this decision.