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Field validation of phylodynamic analytical methods for inference on epidemiological processes in wildlife

Pacioni, C., Vaughan, T.G., Strive, T., Campbell, S. and Ramsey, D.S.L. (2021) Field validation of phylodynamic analytical methods for inference on epidemiological processes in wildlife. Transboundary and Emerging Diseases . Early View.

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Amongst newly developed approaches to analyse molecular data, phylodynamic models are receiving much attention because of their potential to reveal changes to viral populations over short periods. This knowledge can be very important for understanding disease impacts. However, their accuracy needs to be fully understood, especially in relation to wildlife disease epidemiology, where sampling and prior knowledge may be limited. The release of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) as biological control in naïve rabbit populations in Australia in 1996 provides a unique data set with which to validate phylodynamic models. By comparing results obtained from RHDV sequence data with our current understanding of RHDV epidemiology in Australia, we evaluated the performances of these recently developed models. In line with our expectations, coalescent analyses detected a sharp increase in the virus population size in the first few months after release, followed by a more gradual increase. Phylodynamic analyses using a birth–death model generated effective reproductive number estimates (the average number of secondary infections per each infectious case, Re) larger than one for most of the epochs considered. However, the possible range of the initial Re included estimates lower than one despite the known rapid spread of RHDV in Australia. Furthermore, the analyses that accounted for geographical structuring failed to converge. We argue that the difficulties that we encountered most likely stem from the fact that the samples available from 1996 to 2014 were too sparse with respect to both geographic and within outbreak coverage to adequately infer some of the model parameters. In general, while these phylodynamic analyses proved to be greatly informative in some regards, we caution that their interpretation may not be straightforward. We recommend further research to evaluate the robustness of these models to assumption violations and sensitivity to sampling regimes.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
Publisher: Blackwell-Wiss.-Verl
Copyright: © 2021 Wiley‐VCH GmbH
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