The first reported AIDS case happened in June 1981. Unlike any other disease, it attacked the body’s ability to fight infection in stages. The first stage a person contracts the illness but shows no signs of the disease. Then they experience flu-like symptoms. Later, Progressive Swollen Lymph Nodes (PGL) makes the patient suffer more. Finally, white blood cell counts drops from over 10,000 to 40. At that point, full AIDS sets in. The disease mostly affects the underprivileged in America and Africa.
One of those affected was Dr. Davy Koech. He was a member of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute and charged with finding a low-cost cure for AIDS in 1989. He had recently lost a friend to the disease. During Koech’s search, he stumbled on an article in a veterinary magazine on cows suffering from a condition similar to AIDS. The researcher found high amounts of a protein called alpha-interferon in their nasal mucus. An alpha-interferon injection cured the cows. Somehow this elusive protein rebuilt the cow’s immune system.
Later researchers discovered that humans make the same protein. Dr. Koech devised a way to add the protein to a powder and give it to patients who have AIDS in Kenya. The Kenyan trials lasted eighteen months treated 795 patients with only 19 dying of AIDS. Of the 19 that died, 4-5 stopped taking the medication against doctors orders. The medicine was named Kemron when derived from dairy proteins and Immunex when derived from human protein. The success of the trial was announced at a press conference in July of 1990. Not only was it effective, a six month supply only cost $1,500.
The announcement eventually made it’s way to medical journals in the USA. Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad was trying to find a treatment for the epidemic that had been ravaging the black community. He decided to go to Africa to evaluate the claim himself. At first, he admits to being skeptical, but after his investigation, he believed in the drug. By October of 1991, he began treating patients in the USA. Of Dr. Alim’s 75 patients, 90% experienced relief from symptoms in two to three weeks.
Dr. Alim was not the only person that heard about the miracle cure. LaShaun Evans contracted HIV in 1990. She flew to Kenya for treatment was cured. Dr. Koech also claimed to have cured a Kenyan government official that wanted to remain anonymous.
Even though Dr. Alim and a few others were convinced, the mainstream medical community was not. The AIDS Research Advisory Committee (ARAC) which is a branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said there was no scientific support to the claim that interferon is effective in the treatment of AIDS. They studied 108 patients in Africa and found no evidence that the virus was contained. Even Wayne Greaves, an associate professor of medicine at Howard University, felt there was no overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness.
Undeterred by the critics, Dr. Aim assembled a network of seventy doctors across ten cities. All were successfully treating patients with versions of alpha-interferon. These independent trials led to a National Medical Association endorsement. The National Institute of Health (NIH) also reversed their original position and supported trials on alpha-interferon. Part of the reason NIH reversed the decision was many in the Black community accused them of dismissing research from an African.
What made Dr. Alim and his associates’ treatment different was it required ingestion by sticking a lozenge under the patient’s tongue. The lozenge would melt and be absorbed by the mucous membrane. If the stomach lining absorbed the lozenge, nothing would happen. These interferon proteins are produced naturally by the mucous membranes and it takes a mucous membrane to absorb the protein. Dr. Alim also added a regiment prohibiting junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes.
Abundant Life was not only testing AIDS medication, but it also provided general services like AIDS awareness. The DC AIDS Agency was looking for a group to distribute AIDS Awareness pamphlets to the urban community. One of the bidders for this contract was Abundant Life. During the review process, Abundant Life not only had the lowest bid but had the highest evaluation score. Caitlin Ryan and others at the AIDS agency allegedly conspired to keep the contract from going to Abundant Life. Dr. Alim filed a complaint in June of 1993. The investigation resulted in the dismissal of five DC government employees, including Caitlin Ryan.
Dr. Alim then realized he must go above an beyond to win these contracts. He decided to form a coalition of Black and Latino AIDS Activists and Clinics. The new group was named after the Ghanaian symbol for health, Sankofa. By pooling resources and experience that can compete against the companies that normally get the $11 million in federal subsidies. Sankofa incorporated in August of 1993. The most formidable of the competitors was the Whitman Walker Health Clinic that started in 1973. They would compete for the 1.2 million dollar contract to provide AIDS services to the city.
Whitman Walker Health began as a venereal disease clinic for gay men. When the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, gay men were at the forefront. Whitman Walker Health became one of the first large scale operations that tested and treated HIV patients. By the 1990s they have expanded into Maryland and Virginia. When contracts were up for bidding, it was challenging to match their experience and proven record of success.
The reason there were so many black organizations to fight AIDS in the 1990s was the changing demographics of the disease. In the 1980s, 56% of AIDS patients were black, by the 1990s it was 75%. In addition, 25 -30% of the incarcerated population, that is majority black, had HIV. Many of the new minority patients contracted the disease through intravenous drug use and did not feel comfortable going to LGBT+ white people for treatment. Also, minorities were suspicious of white medical care in general. The government recently released the files from the Tuskegee Experiment. The experiment allowed dozens of black men to suffer from syphilis when a cure was readily available. There were also rumors, often spread by the Nation of Islam, that the AIDS virus was artificially developed to kill black people. All these factors led to Blacks and Latinos to want care from those within their community.
At the same time, the black community was skeptical of the white medical establishment; the LGBT+ community was suspicious of Dr. Alim, who was the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The NOI has made many inflammatory statements about the LGBT+ community. They had even gone as far as to say there were no LGBT+ people in Africa before colonialism. The idea of homosexuality being a colonial phenomenon goes far beyond typical conservative stances against gays and lesbians. Dr. Alim had also been public about his opposition to condoms being dispensed at schools and free needle programs. The gay members of Sankofa expressed their concern but felt unity was important if they were going to compete with more established health care organizations.
In June of 1994, Whitman Walker Health won the $1.2 million contract with the right to renew without competition for four years. This contract was the largest involving AIDS treatment that year in DC and Sankofa was the leading competitor in the two-stage bidding process. The first panel rated Whitman Walker and Sankofa equally. Whitman Walker’s numerous volunteers and previous AIDS prevention efforts gave them the edge in the second panel.
Leaders in Sankofa did not take the decision laying down. Alonzo Fair, a Sankofa spokesman and leader of URBAN, wrote letters to city human services officials weekly during the bidding process. Flair said he doubted Sankofa would be treated fairly unless the officials were pressured. He also questioned the legality of the second panel. Dr. Alim is quoted as saying, “This would signal no one in city hall hears or cares about the under-served.” The Washington Post also quoted him as saying “bad news for all the communities that are most affected by this epidemic east of the Anacostia River…I can only speculate in an election year.. whether some kind of political deal has been cut.”  The decision to award the contract to Whitman Walker came within days of a prominent LGBT community organization endorsing then-mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. It is also important to remember Mayor Kelly named a day in honor of Abdul Alim Muhammad two years earlier.
The goal of forming Abundant Life was not just to win government contracts, but prove low does alpha-interferon works. By 1993, the World Health Organization conducted a sixty-week study by black doctors that could not prove Kemron worked. In addition, studies by National Institutes of Health (NIH) on various alpha-interferon drugs could not conclusively prove the treatment worked. Part of the problem with the trial is no one fully understood alpha-interferon and how it works in the body, including Dr. Alim. Therefore if the test did have shortcomings, one could not modify the trial.
After twelve delays, the NIH trials began on April 19, 1996. The study did not only include community health facilities like Abundant Life and the AIDS Community Consortium. They also used established mainstream health care facilities such as Georgetown University Medical Center, Medical Center of Delaware, and the University of Minnesota Hospital. To participate in the study, one had to be over 13 years old and have a CD4+ T-cell count of 50 to 350 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Inmates were not included in the trial despite the advocacy of Dr. Alim. The trials called for 560 patients.
Unfortunately, the day the trial was announced the IRS froze many of Abundant Life Clinics accounts and put a levy on $23,000 the DC government owed the clinic for AIDS services already rendered. The clinic was accused of not paying payroll taxes. Dr. Alim admitted he would not be surprised if they did have a tax filing discrepancy.  According to sources in the press, the clinic owed between $90,000 to $174,000. A similar fate befell Dr. Barbara Justice another facility that was part of the Kemron trials. A third facility ran by Dr. David Jordan had its funding sources dry up. Many, including Dr. Alim believed this legal trouble was due to a government conspiracy. However, there were still over a dozen other clinics not affected by the IRS or funding issues involved in the study.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) contracted the Division of AIDS Treatment Research Institute (DATRI) to oversee the study. Unbeknownst to Dr. Alim or the other researchers DATRI was in financial trouble and had to shut its doors by the end of 1997 after only being in business six years. One of the researchers, Dr. Austin, believed NIH never wanted to conduct the trial so they contracted DATRI because they knew they would go out of business.
Only 233 patients enrolled of the needed 560. The trials ended early on July 31, 1997, due to lack of participation. Even if the trial went to its 18-month completion, the goal would not have been met. The difficulty in finding patients was listed as the official reason the trial stopped. Black media, including the NOI’s “Final Call” covered the trials and disseminated information on how to volunteer. However, in the end, all the efforts were not enough.