Commentary on the use of the reproduction number R during the COVID-19 pandemic

Carolin Vegvari, Sam Abbott, Frank Ball, Ellen Brooks-Pollock, Robert Challen, Benjamin S. Collyer, Ciara Dangerfield, Julia R. Gog, Katelyn M. Gostic, Jane M. Heffernan, T. Deirdre Hollingsworth, Valerie Isham, Eben Kenah, Denis Mollison, Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, Lorenzo Pellis, Michael G. Roberts, Gianpaolo Scalia Tomba, Robin N. Thompson, Pieter Trapman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reproduction number (Formula presented.) has become a popular epidemiological metric used to communicate the state of the epidemic. At its most basic, (Formula presented.) is defined as the average number of secondary infections caused by one primary infected individual. (Formula presented.) seems convenient, because the epidemic is expanding if (Formula presented.) and contracting if (Formula presented.). The magnitude of (Formula presented.) indicates by how much transmission needs to be reduced to control the epidemic. Using (Formula presented.) in a naïve way can cause new problems. The reasons for this are threefold: (1) There is not just one definition of (Formula presented.) but many, and the precise definition of (Formula presented.) affects both its estimated value and how it should be interpreted. (2) Even with a particular clearly defined (Formula presented.), there may be different statistical methods used to estimate its value, and the choice of method will affect the estimate. (3) The availability and type of data used to estimate (Formula presented.) vary, and it is not always clear what data should be included in the estimation. In this review, we discuss when (Formula presented.) is useful, when it may be of use but needs to be interpreted with care, and when it may be an inappropriate indicator of the progress of the epidemic. We also argue that careful definition of (Formula presented.), and the data and methods used to estimate it, can make (Formula presented.) a more useful metric for future management of the epidemic.

Original languageEnglish
JournalStatistical Methods in Medical Research
Publication statusPublished - 27 Sept 2021


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Reproduction number


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