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An early estimate of disease transmissibility is essential for a well-informed public health response to a newly emerged infectious disease. In this study, we ask what type and quantity of data are needed for useful estimation of the initial reproduction number (R). It is possible to estimate R from case incidence data alone when the growing incidence of cases displays a wave pattern, because the pattern provides information about the serial interval (the time elapsed between the onset of symptoms of a case and symptom onset in individuals infected by that case). When the mode of the serial interval distribution is small, 1.5 days or less, there is generally no informative wave pattern in the observed series of daily incidences. The precision of the estimate of R is then improved substantially by having some observations on the serial interval. For an infectious disease with characteristics such as those of influenza, an estimate of R able to inform plans to mitigate transmission is obtained when the cumulative incidence of cases reaches about 300 and about 10 observations on the serial interval are available.


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