the limits of R

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It has been repeated many times on many platforms, the R (or R⁰) number is not a great summary about the COVID-19 pandemic, see eg Rossman’s warning in The Conversation, but Nature chose to stress it one more time (in its 16 Jul edition). Or twice when considering a similar piece in Nature Physics. As Boris Johnson made it a central tool of his governmental communication policy. And some mayors started asking for their own local R numbers! It is obviously tempting to turn the messy and complex reality of this planetary crisis into a single number and even a single indicator R<1, but it is unhelpful and worse, from the epidemiology models being wrong (or at least oversimplifying) to the data being wrong (i.e., incomplete, biased and late), to the predictions being wrong (except for predicting the past). Nothing outrageous from the said Nature article, pointing out diverse degrees of uncertainty and variability and stressing the need to immediately address clusters rather than using the dummy R. As an aside, the repeated use of nowcasting instead of forecasting sounds like a perfect journalist fad, given that it does not seem to be based on a different model of infection or on a different statistical technique. (There is a nowcasting package in R, though!)

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