I learned about this last week, when Science published a short article on how the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had recommended two research groups NOT to publish details on how avian influenza strains were modified in order to make them transmissible through aerosol in ferrets.
You can read that story here.
The first thing that struck me was: is this censorship? Because for as long as I've been a scientist I've known that the great bulk of scientific progress is made through the free exchange of ideas and results. The very core of scientific validation is in the reproducibility of an experiment, and you can't reproduce an experiment unless who conducted it shares the details.
Why then the recommendation?
The World Health Organization currently lists the case fatality of avian influenza (H5) somewhere between 50% and 80%. This is the percentage of all cases that report in a hospital and have been confirmed through labwork. Currently, it is transmissible through fluids by coming in contact with infected birds. The two studies under the radar here, by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, have been submitted but not yet published to Science and Nature respectively. Though different, they both prove that it takes a relatively small number of mutations for the virus to become transmissible through aerosol in ferrets.
Why the fear? With a fatality rate anywhere above 50%, if you can make the virus transmissible through aerosol, you've got a deadly weapon. But is it so obvious one can make it?
First, ferrets are not humans and currently we have no way to predict whether what has been observed in ferrets is likely to happen in humans. For example, there are many strains of avian influenza, and they all have been circulating in birds for many decades. However, of all these strains, only three (H1, H2, and H3) have been able to circulate in humans. There is a natural bottleneck in the way a virus is able to adapt from one organism to another.
One may object we don't know for sure, so, theoretically, it could be possible. But in that case, is censorship the answer? I honestly don't think so and I was quite happy to find a PNAS paper  in complete agreement with my thoughts:
"Why Is it Important to Have the Full Data Published? With respect to the specific papers by Fouchier and Kawaoka, it would be important for other scientists to replicate portions of these works to test new vaccines/therapeutic agents and for continued studies on the molecular aspects of influenza transmission, a topic that is extremely important yet relatively poorly understood."And, most importantly:
"It would be very difficult for a bioterrorist to come up with a human virus strain that is transmissible and still highly virulent. Under natural conditions, however, there is virtually unlimited allowance for generation of capable viruses, the opportunities for infection of humans are plentiful, and the evolutionary pressures of selection are great. If anyone could do it, Nature could."And that's exactly why we need to be prepared. And the way we are prepared is by sharing results and having multiple groups worldwide brainstorm and join forces to find a vaccine.
What do you guys think?
Palese, P., & Wang, T. (2012). H5N1 influenza viruses: Facts, not fear Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (7), 2211-2213 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1121297109