The story of the R number: How an obscure epidemiological figure took over our lives

Article by Gavin Freeguard: “Covid-19 did not only dominate our lives in April 2020. It also dominated the list of new words entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alongside Covid-19 itself (noun, “An acute respiratory illness in humans caused by a coronavirus”), the vocabulary of the virus included “self-quarantine”, “social distancing”, “infodemic”, “flatten the curve”, “personal protective equipment”, “elbow bump”, “WFH” and much else. But nestled among this pantheon of new pandemic words was a number, one that would shape our conversations, our politics, our lives for the next 18 months like no other: “Basic reproduction number (R0): The average number of cases of an infectious disease arising by transmission from a single infected individual, in a population that has not previously encountered the disease.”

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“There have been many important figures in this pandemic,” wrote The Times in January 2021, “but one has come to tower over the rest: the reproduction rate. The R number, as everyone calls it, has been used by the government to justify imposing and lifting lockdowns. Indeed while there are many important numbers — gross domestic product, parliamentary majorities, interest rates — few can compete right now with R” (tinyurl.com/v7j6cth9).

Descriptions of it at the start of the pandemic made R the star of the disaster movie reality we lived through. And it wasn’t just a breakout star of the UK’s coronavirus press conferences; in Germany, (then) Chancellor Angela Merkel made the most of her scientific background to explain the meaning of R and its consequences to the public (tinyurl.com/mva7urw5).

But for others, the “obsession” (Professor Linda Bauld, University of Edinburgh) with “the pandemic’s misunderstood metric” (Naturetinyurl.com/y3sr6n6m) has been “a distraction”, an “unhelpful focus”; as the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Mark Woolhouse told one parliamentary select committee, “we’ve created a monster”.

How did this epidemiological number come to dominate our discourse? How useful is it? And where does it come from?…(More)”.

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