During the outbreak of a virus, perhaps the greatest concern is the future evolution of the epidemic: How many people will be infected and which regions will be affected the most? The accurate prediction of an epidemic enables targeted disease countermeasures (e.g., allocating medical staff and quarantining). But when can we trust the prediction of an epidemic to be accurate? In this work we consider susceptible-infected-susceptible (SIS) and susceptible-infected-removed (SIR) epidemics on networks with time-invariant spreading parameters. (For time-varying spreading parameters, our results correspond to an optimistic scenario for the predictability of epidemics.) Our contribution is twofold. First, accurate long-term predictions of epidemics are possible only after the peak rate of new infections. Hence, before the peak, only short-term predictions are reliable. Second, we define an exponential growth metric, which quantifies the predictability of an epidemic. In particular, even without knowing the future evolution of the epidemic, the growth metric allows us to compare the predictability of an epidemic at different points in time. Our results are an important step towards understanding when and why epidemics can be predicted reliably.
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