Via The New Yorker, Michael Specter writes: The Trouble with Scientific Secrets. Excerpt (but read the whole article, and also read Dr. Vincent Racaniello's scathing comment below):
In early September, the European Scientific Working group on Influenza convened on Malta to hold its fourth conference. Researchers delivered a variety of technical reports on the state of influenza research and the prospects for vaccines. As was the case with the first three conferences, the world took little notice.
The data presented by one group, however, has so alarmed public-health officials throughout the world that yesterday the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal group established by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, asked the journals Science and Nature to refrain from publishing essential details of the research.
It was the first time the group had made such a request. Officials said the report had implications for bioterrorism that were too obvious too ignore, and too powerful to make public.
The report in question involved avian influenza. At the conference, Ron Fouchier, a virologist from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, had announced that he and his colleagues had created a form of the H5N1 influenza virus—more commonly known as bird flu—that could pass easily among ferrets.
Flu experts got the point instantly: ferrets are mammals; if they can be infected though the airborne transmission of H5N1, so, almost certainly, can we. This was the extremely bad news that the epidemiological world had been waiting for—but hoping never to hear—since avian influenza began to spread across Asia nearly a decade ago.