Complexity of the Basic Reproduction Number (R0) – NCBI (2019)

Although R0 might appear to be a simple measure that can be used to determine infectious disease transmission dynamics and the threats that new outbreaks pose to the public health, the definition, calculation, and interpretation of R0 are anything but simple. R0 remains a valuable epidemiologic concept, but the expanded use of R0 in both the scientific literature and the popular press appears to have enabled some misunderstandings to propagate. R0 is an estimate of contagiousness that is a function of human behavior and biological characteristics of pathogens. R0 is not a measure of the severity of an infectious disease or the rapidity of a pathogen’s spread through a population. R0 values are nearly always estimated from mathematical models, and the estimated values are dependent on numerous decisions made in the modeling process. The contagiousness of different historic, emerging, and reemerging infectious agents cannot be fairly compared without recalculating R0 with the same modeling assumptions. Some of the R0 values commonly reported in the literature for past epidemics might not be valid for outbreaks of the same infectious disease today.

R0 can be misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misapplied in a variety of ways that distort the metric’s true meaning and value. Because of these various sources of confusion, R0 must be applied and discussed with caution in research and practice. This epidemiologic construct will only remain valuable and relevant when used and interpreted correctly.