Rapidly identifying the features of a covert release of an agent such as anthrax could help to inform the planning of public health mitigation strategies. Previous studies have sought to estimate the time and size of a bioterror attack based on the symptomatic onset dates of early cases. We extend the scope of these methods by proposing a method for characterizing the time, strength, and also the location of an aerosolized pathogen release. A back-calculation method is developed allowing the characterization of the release based on the data on the first few observed cases of the subsequent outbreak, meteorological data, population densities, and data on population travel patterns. We evaluate this method on small simulated anthrax outbreaks (about 25–35 cases) and show that it could date and localize a release after a few cases have been observed, although misspecifications of the spore dispersion model, or the within-host dynamics model, on which the method relies can bias the estimates. Our method could also provide an estimate of the outbreak's geographical extent and, as a consequence, could help to identify populations at risk and, therefore, requiring prophylactic treatment. Our analysis demonstrates that while estimates based on the first ten or 15 observed cases were more accurate and less sensitive to model misspecifications than those based on five cases, overall mortality is minimized by targeting prophylactic treatment early on the basis of estimates made using data on the first five cases. The method we propose could provide early estimates of the time, strength, and location of an aerosolized anthrax release and the geographical extent of the subsequent outbreak. In addition, estimates of release features could be used to parameterize more detailed models allowing the simulation of control strategies and intervention logistics
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