Epidemiological models range in complexity from relatively simple statistical models that make minimal assumptions about the variables driving epidemic dynamics to more mechanistic models that include effects such as vaccine-derived and infection-derived immunity, population structure and heterogeneity. The former are often fitted to data in real-time and used for short-term forecasting, while the latter are more suitable for comparing longer-term scenarios under differing assumptions about control measures or other factors.
Here, we present a mechanistic model of intermediate complexity that can be fitted to data in real-time but is also suitable for investigating longer-term dynamics. Our approach provides a bridge between primarily empirical approaches to forecasting and assumption-driven scenario models. The model was developed as a policy advice tool for New Zealand’s 2021 outbreak of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 and includes the effects of age structure, non-pharmaceutical interventions, and the ongoing vaccine rollout occurring during the time period studied. We use an approximate Bayesian computation approach to infer the time-varying transmission coefficient from real-time data on reported cases. We then compare projections of the model with future, out-of-sample data.
We find that this approach produces a good fit with in-sample data and reasonable forward projections given the inherent limitations of predicting epidemic dynamics during periods of rapidly changing policy and behaviour. Results from the model helped inform the New Zealand Government’s policy response throughout the outbreak.