Deep Learning and Likelihood Approaches for Viral Phylogeography Converge on the Same Answers Whether the Inference Model Is Right or Wrong

Ammon Thompson, Benjamin J. Liebeskind, Erik J. Scully, Michael J. Landis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Analysis of phylogenetic trees has become an essential tool in epidemiology. Likelihood-based methods fit models to phylogenies to draw inferences about the phylodynamics and history of viral transmission. However, these methods are often computationally expensive, which limits the complexity and realism of phylodynamic models and makes them ill-suited for informing policy decisions in real-time during rapidly developing outbreaks. Likelihood-free methods using deep learning are pushing the boundaries of inference beyond these constraints. In this paper, we extend, compare, and contrast a recently developed deep learning method for likelihood-free inference from trees. We trained multiple deep neural networks using phylogenies from simulated outbreaks that spread among 5 locations and found they achieve close to the same levels of accuracy as Bayesian inference under the true simulation model. We compared robustness to model misspecification of a trained neural network to that of a Bayesian method. We found that both models had comparable performance, converging on similar biases. We also implemented a method of uncertainty quantification called conformalized quantile regression that we demonstrate has similar patterns of sensitivity to model misspecification as Bayesian highest posterior density (HPD) and greatly overlap with HPDs, but have lower precision (more conservative). Finally, we trained and tested a neural network against phylogeographic data from a recent study of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic in Europe and obtained similar estimates of region-specific epidemiological parameters and the location of the common ancestor in Europe. Along with being as accurate and robust as likelihood-based methods, our trained neural networks are on average over 3 orders of magnitude faster after training. Our results support the notion that neural networks can be trained with simulated data to accurately mimic the good and bad statistical properties of the likelihood functions of generative phylogenetic models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-206
Number of pages24
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2024


  • Deep learning
  • epidemiology
  • machine learning
  • phylodynamics
  • phylogeography


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