Detecting presymptomatic infection is necessary to forecast major epidemics in the earliest stages of infectious disease outbreaks
We assess how presymptomatic infection affects predictability of infectious disease epidemics. We focus on whether or not a major outbreak (i.e. an epidemic that will go on to infect a large number of individuals) can be predicted reliably soon after initial cases of disease have appeared within a population. For emerging epidemics, significant time and effort is spent recording symptomatic cases. Scientific attention has often focused on improving statistical methodologies to estimate disease transmission parameters from these data. Here we show that, even if symptomatic cases are recorded perfectly, and disease spread parameters are estimated exactly, it is impossible to estimate the probability of a major outbreak without ambiguity.