Online Bayesian phylodynamic inference in BEAST with application to epidemic reconstruction

by   Mandev S. Gill, et al.

Reconstructing pathogen dynamics from genetic data as they become available during an outbreak or epidemic represents an important statistical scenario in which observations arrive sequentially in time and one is interested in performing inference in an 'online' fashion. Widely-used Bayesian phylogenetic inference packages are not set up for this purpose, generally requiring one to recompute trees and evolutionary model parameters de novo when new data arrive. To accommodate increasing data flow in a Bayesian phylogenetic framework, we introduce a methodology to efficiently update the posterior distribution with newly available genetic data. Our procedure is implemented in the BEAST 1.10 software package, and relies on a distance-based measure to insert new taxa into the current estimate of the phylogeny and imputes plausible values for new model parameters to accommodate growing dimensionality. This augmentation creates informed starting values and re-uses optimally tuned transition kernels for posterior exploration of growing data sets, reducing the time necessary to converge to target posterior distributions. We apply our framework to data from the recent West African Ebola virus epidemic and demonstrate a considerable reduction in time required to obtain posterior estimates at different time points of the outbreak. Beyond epidemic monitoring, this framework easily finds other applications within the phylogenetics community, where changes in the data – in terms of alignment changes, sequence addition or removal – present common scenarios that can benefit from online inference.


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