Episode 2: Turn Your Back
During the height of the AIDS crisis, one man sues in court to try Dr. Davis’ goat serum — which has not been approved by the FDA. A desperate mother decides it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. She takes her little girl, and ventures halfway across the country to meet the doctor. She later tells reporters that she had to take a drastic step to get her hands on the treatment but has no regrets. Then: a ray of hope. The 7-year-old girl begins to recover after taking the doctor’s unapproved serum, and her doctors at the National Institutes of Health take notice. So, why didn’t the NIH investigate further? And why won’t the girl, now all grown up, answer Grant’s messages?
Serum is a limited run podcast production of WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media.
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SERUM Episode 2 – Turn Your Back
It was March 1998. And Rocky Thomas had a plan to save her daughter’s life. She says it was her last hope. And she kept it all a secret.
Rocky Thomas: Nobody was going to talk me out of doing what I did
GH: First, they boarded a train at Union Station in Washington, DC. A plane wouldn’t do, she says, her daughter was too sick to sit upright.
So she asked a kind conductor if they could use his sleeper car. He said yes, and that’s where the two rested until they were halfway across the country. All of this to meet a doctor Rocky had seen on the news.
RT: he said god had given him this vision to make the antibody from the goat
GH: She believed this man – his new goat serum – could cure her daughter. She didn’t care that it wasn’t FDA-approved. She was ready to do what she had to do.
RT: I took it.
News reporter: What do you mean you took it?
RT: I took the serum.
News Reporter: You stole it.
RT: I stole it.
GH: And she says she’d do it all again if she had to…
RT: What did I have to lose…
GH: Anything to save Precious Thomas.
GH: From WHYY’s The Pulse in Philadelphia and Local Trance Media…this is SERUM. I’m Grant Hill.
The first time I heard about Rocky Thomas and her daughter Precious was in my Lyft ride with Clyde Ashley Sherman.
CAS: You’ll see a story about a woman who adopted a crack baby but the baby also had AIDS and was not doing well with NIH.
GH: A little girl he described as a quote-unquote “crack baby” born with HIV in the early 90s, and the woman who adopted her…determined to fight for her new daughter’s future.
He mentioned them as an aside to his grand adventures with Dr. Gary Davis and his experimental AIDS treatment, but I quickly learned the two were central to the doctor’s story – and his claims of a cure.
According to old news reports, by 1998, Rocky and Precious were in need of a miracle.
Back then, Precious Thomas was, in many ways, the face of childhood HIV
News: by the time Precious was six, Rocky knew her little girl could die any day..
GH: Often described as a tiny warrior battling the virus, raising awareness where it mattered most – the nation’s capital. Precious and Rocky are Black – and at the time, 49 percent of all AIDS related deaths were among African Americans – a mortality rate 10 times higher than whites – so the little girl’s advocacy felt urgent.
One of the reasons for the stark disparity in those death rates was related to the first breakthrough AIDS treatment to hit the market: AZT – a 20 year-old failed cancer drug reimagined as an effective HIV antiretroviral.
Government research failed to include enough Black participants in one of the first influential studies of AZT, so this research was riddled with statistical errors that inaccurately concluded that, not only was AZT not as effective for Black people, it could actually be harmful.
For years, doctors were hesitant to prescribe this life saving medication to African Americans based on this one wrong study. And some patients were scared to take it.
So this was the world Precious Thomas had to navigate after contracting the virus prenatally from her birth mother.
And not only did she survive, but she and her adoptive mother Rocky declared on television news that it was all thanks to Gary Davis’ goat serum.
News report: new treatment he created by injecting a goat…
GH: Precious had to be nearing her thirties now. But despite all that past exposure, I was having trouble finding her online, but I did find her adoptive mother Rocky. We started messaging and planned to talk in person.
By the time our schedules lined up the world had changed. Another deadly virus was holding the country in its grip – the novel coronavirus —
News clip, FAUCI: the way we can respond is to do the kind of distancing socially….
GH: We were a month into the lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so we settled for a phone call.
GH: Hey Rocky.
RT: Hello? Hi.
GH: Hi. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Sorry for all the technical difficulties.
Baby coos in the background.
Rocky tells me the baby cooing in the background is her youngest daughter. She’s two years old.
RT: Mhm. I have another baby. I had her since she was two months, too. Her mother left her in the hospital.
GH: Did you adopt?
RT: I sure did.
GH: All-in-all, Rocky says she’s helped raise 13 children and that she officially adopted two of them.
GH: Tell me about how you first came to adopt Precious? How did that happen?
RT: Her mother was friends with my aunt. And my aunt basically lived in a crack house.
GH: Precious was born in the summer of 1991 to a biological mother who struggled with drug addiction. Rocky’s aunt was friends with the little girl’s birth mother – they lived in the same place. and it wasn’t long until Rocky started looking after the newborn.
RT: Maybe, maybe a week, then the weekend, then the weekend, next two weeks, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks.
GH: By the time Precious was two months old, Rocky says she made arrangements with the girl’s biological mother to take care of Precious permanently. Then only months later…
RT: She got sick when she turned one.
GH: Fevers, thrush on her tongue, this is when Rocky found out Precious was HIV positive.
RT: AIDS was… basically wasn’t talked about back then.
GH: Precious was quickly admitted to DC General Hospital, in a ward with other HIV-infected infants and babies. Some had been abandoned there.
RT: And you know some of the babies nobody would ever go see or anything, so she was in a ward like that.
GH: According to Rocky, the custody agreement for Precious wasn’t formalized yet – which meant Rocky couldn’t make any decisions concerning the little girl’s health care.
RT: I went to the court while she was in the hospital and petitioned for me to get her so she can be treated.
GH: Rocky says she didn’t think twice about the road ahead. She formally adopted Precious. From then on, Rocky says the little girl’s doctors tried everything to help her but she says nothing was working – that they tried one drug after another with varying degrees of failure. But at a time when many with HIV were ignored or judged, Precious wasn’t.
LL: Her story went public. Leading to headlines in suburban Washington, DC newspapers, appearances with celebrities, even a visit from President Clinton.
GH: So what was Precious like as a child I mean like you said she was pretty sick from the beginning. Right? So how did this kind of shape her life as a kid?
RT: Well, even with her being sick, she was a smart child. Very smart.
GH: Rocky says Precious wasn’t afraid of attention – that she liked the spotlight. By the time she was in elementary school, she was basically an activist. Started connecting with others who were positive. Soon a friend suggested Rocky apply with the National Institutes of Health to allow Precious to participate in trials with experimental drug treatments. She got in.
RT: There was so much medicine, oh my god.
Some of this is documented in old news stories…
Reporter: For the last year, Precious has been monitored by doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She was enrolled in two studies or protocols.
RT: One didn’t do anything at all.
Reporter: It requires intense monitoring while patients receive injections to boost the immune system and pills to drop the viral load. That’s the amount of virus detectable in the blood.
Reporter: Though Precious never took the pills from the NIH protocol. She got sick from the few injections she did take.
RT : When they came in the room, I had already packed up the room. I said no more. //
GH: Rocky says it didn’t work – more disappointments. Treatments that seemed to just make Precious feel sicker, and leave her weaker than before.
Then one day Rocky got word about a doctor from Tulsa who believed he had discovered a viable treatment – maybe even a cure – derived from goats’ blood.
GH: So how did you first find out about him?
RT: Channel 5 Fox had did a story on a man that was on his deathbed. From that segment, my phone started ringing off the hook and people were calling me. “Did you see that? Did you see that?”
GH: The news story Rocky saw was about a man from Oklahoma living with HIV – who couldn’t take the best new treatment options available at the time – like AZT.
By 1997, AZT and other recent breakthrough drugs had begun to usher in a new era of hope among many living with AIDS. But the man on Rocky’s TV set – was not so lucky. His name: Bobby Cowan
FOX reporter: Bobby Cowan is dying of AIDS. He is also deathly allergic to the cocktail of powerful lifesaving drugs routinely given to AIDS patients today.
He has a very blunt way of summing up his dilemma.
Reporter: You can’t take AZT.
Bobby Cowan: Nope.
REPORTER: You can’t take protease inhibitors.
REPORTER: If you do?
BC: I die.
REPORTER: However, if you don’t?
BC: I die.
GD: Take a deep breath…
REPORTER: Cowan’s physician Dr. Gary Davis of Tulsa, Oklahoma has a treatment that he believes will help. Maybe even cure Bobby Cowan. But it is so unusual the Food and Drug Administration is banning the treatment.
GH: In the news clip, Bobby Cowan wears a black sweater, a cowboy hat, large-framed glasses. He’s a middle-aged white man with a desperate look on his face.
AIDS was still claiming thousands and thousands of lives in the US every year. And from the beginning, those living with it were fighting a disease that was shrouded in shame and fear. – ostracized by society, ignored by their government – or even belittled.
This is a recording from 1982.
The mysterious illness had already killed about 600 Americans. And a reporter asked President Ronald Reagan’s deputy press secretary Larry Speakes about the disturbing trend for the first time…
Lester Kinsolving: It’s known as gay plague
GH: Yes, that’s laughter you’re hearing. The reporter tried again…
Lester Kinsolving: No it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people who get this have died and I wonder if the president is aware of it.
Larry Speakes: I don’t have it, do you?
LK: You don’t have it. Well, I’m relieved to hear that Larry.
LS: You didn’t answer my question, how do you know?
LK: In other words the White House looks at this as a great joke?
LS: No I don’t know anything about it Lester.
LK: Does the President? Does anybody at the White House know about this epidemic Larry?
LS: I don’t think so, there have been no personal experience here Lester. I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is…
GH: It took President Reagan four years after the first known case to publicly say the name of this illness: “AIDS.” That was on September 17, 1985.
Surveys from that time showed a quarter of Americans thought people with AIDS had it coming.
But the crisis was getting too big to not act. By the end of that year, known AIDS-related deaths in the United States climbed to over 8,000. And congress nearly doubled its funding for research – to 190 million dollars.
The wheels were turning slowly, though. That stigma had staying power. There seemed to be very little urgency, especially since the outbreak appeared contained within already marginalized communities: gay men, Black Americans, Haitian immigrants, and intravenous drug users.
It was easy for the country and its medical establishment to turn away.
So activists took to the streets to demand more funding, more support, and better options. Some went directly to FDA headquarters.
GH: Radical action was everywhere thanks to a group called ACTUP – peaceful protests…die-ins, spectacular demonstrations…they also attracted the attention of law enforcement…heavily redacted records show the FBI had at least one informant within the group.
Beyond the protests – the activists also collected research and data on the illness, and potential treatments.
One big demand was to be allowed to try new or developing medications that seemed to show promise for HIV.
CHANT: we’re dying of red tape, we’re dying of red tape
GH: Right to Try laws did not yet exist then – but people were pushing, fighting to try different treatments, that had not yet gotten the stamp of approval from the government.
Bobby Cowan, the man Rocky had seen on TV, was one of them – suing the federal government… to be allowed to try Gary Davis’ serum.
REPORTER: He wants the FDA to get out of his business and allow him to take the goat serum.
BC: Look, I’m in a very unique situation. I have faith in God. I have trust in my doctor. And I believe in the serum.
BC: Get out of my business. I am living this. Washington DC is not living this. The FDA is not living this. I go through this every day. I go to bed. I don’t know if I’m gonna wake up. I see Christmas . I don’t know if it’s gonna be my last Christmas. And I have a constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if I’m dead, I’m not gonna be too happy.
GH: I found the attorney who represented Bobby Cowan during this case. Jeff Nix from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was working with Gary Davis at the time, filing paperwork to move the serum toward FDA approval… So, he took on the Cowan case, too
Jeff Nix: Bob was just very quiet. Just real respectful. Just a really nice guy. And he was a biker, um, Harley. But wasn’t a Hells Angel or any of that stuff. He lived in a mobile home park out west. He was just a very ordinary working class guy and he was just so nice, and his wife, they were just such nice people.
GH: Nice people who were running out of time…
JN: He had told me this, that he was so far down a well, that it was either a Hail Mary like Gary’s serum, or Bob would be pushing up daisies.
GH: Jeff said he knew his odds for winning the case were slim, especially in such a conservative jurisdiction…but he wanted to try anyway.
JN: The day of the hearing, the courtroom was packed with people who were advocates. And were supportive, black and white.
GH: Jeff Nix and Bobby Cowan lost their first attempt in court failed – but they had other legal options they could still pursue.
Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away, Rocky Thomas had learned a valuable lesson from Bobby Cowan’s story. This doctor from Oklahoma seemed to have something worth fighting for, and if she wanted to get her hands on this treatment, it would be better to ask forgiveness than try to get permission.
GH: And, it turned out, Gary Davis had heard of Precious, too, and wanted to meet her.
RT: This one particular person got in touch with Dr. Davis about Precious and then Dr. Davis’ staff got in touch with me.
GH: When we come back: Rocky takes Precious to see Dr. Davis. And then…
She started feeling better immediately. When I say immediately, it was like go to sleep, wake up and it was a whole other person.
GH: That’s still to come, on Serum
GH: This is Serum – I’m Grant Hill.
So, after talking to Dr. Gary Davis, Rocky hatched her secret plan to get Precious to Tulsa. The two got on the train, made the long trip. And when they finally arrived, Davis and his staff gave them a warm welcome.
RT: It was great because we have been communicating. It was like we knew him, you know? And we met his family and everybody was excited to meet this little girl.
GH: They sat down in his office to talk about the serum. Davis later told reporters that he wanted to explain why it might be effective for Precious.
NEWS REPORT Gary Davis: She wanted to learn about the procedure. What a neutralizing antibody was and how do you give this particular serum and what are the side effects? I’ve had 100 people, thousands, ask me the same thing.
RT: It was like sitting in class, we had tons of questions.
GH: Rocky wanted to know how it worked, would there be any side effects?
RT: Is she gonna act like a goat? Is she gonna want to eat everything, you know? He had his dry board eraser and showing me how the antibodies worked and what it did for the goat. It was a whole lesson.
GH: Rocky later told reporters that Davis informed her that the serum wasn’t FDA approved…administering it to Precious might be dangerous and illegal.
RT: He told me all the proper channels to go I call FDA I talk to Precious’ attorney, And I went through all the proper channels. Precious was still getting sick. [cries]
GH: But Rocky didn’t come all the way to Oklahoma for a pharmacology lesson. She needed results.
GH: So, Rocky claimed she took matters into her own hands: quietly sneaking up the spiral staircase while the doctor was preoccupied – to Davis’ private office where the serum was stored in a freezer:
RT: That’s how it had to be kept, in a freezer. It was in a vial. Not a glass tube. It had a screw-on top.
GH: She told reporters… Behind his back, she grabbed some and told no one. Especially not Davis.
Reporter: What did you do?
RT: I took the goat serum. I took it and with the knowledge that I had, I did what I had to do.
Reporter: You took it without the doctor’s knowledge?
News Report TULSA
RT: I took it.
Reporter 2: What do you mean you took it?
RT: I took the serum.
Reporter 2 You stole it.
RT: I stole it.
Reporter 2: Did you think about asking Dr. Davis?
RT: He couldn’t.
Reporter 2: You asked him and what did he say?
RT: He couldn’t do it because it wasn’t FDA approved.
GH: It sounded improbable – Rocky’s heist of the prized serum, her tiptoeing up a spiral staircase in the middle of a busy doctor’s office to save her little girl – but, that was her story and she stuck with it…for just a little over 20 years. Until she tells me a different story during our phone call…now, she says: Gary Davis was in on it the whole time.
RT: He couldn’t administer it to her because it wasn’t FDA approved. He couldn’t administer it to her. But I could. Turn your back. You don’t know nothing. Turn your back. LAUGHS. I’m gonna give it to her.
GH: So, so… you told him to turn his back and you went and got the serum?
RT: I sure did. You ain’t giving me nothing. I’m not trying to get you in no trouble. I just want her to feel better.
GH: After this reveal, it became apparent to me that Davis was good at bluffing – or maybe to put it a little more bluntly – lying. Here he is talking to reporters about his reaction to the “theft” from his office..
Reporter: Why didn’t you report this to the authorities?
GD: I understand the position. I don’t agree with the methodology. But I do understand. She wants to try to save her daughter’s life.
GH: So if Rocky’s theft was a cover-up – what did that make Bobby Cowan and his one-man stand against big government? Why would Davis give the serum to Rocky but not Bobby?
The news reports of the time portrayed a desperate, dying man, fighting to get his hands on Davis’ serum – his last hope. If only the FDA would get out of the way.
But Jeff Nix, the lawyer from Tulsa, told me that while Bobby Cowan may have enjoyed giving Washington the finger, Bobby didn’t wait for their approval. He was already taking the serum.
JN: That’s accurate. He was living pretty normal, he was eating pretty normal, he was a very slender guy. So you know, he always looked somewhat undernourished but he was saying that he had gained weight. And just his general attitude was just a whole lot better. And his wife was just, I mean, she would almost get tears in her eyes when he would talk and she would talk about how much better off he was.
GH: So, why then did Bobby and Gary Davis file a lawsuit?
JN: We thought that it was possible that through the suit, we could get some sort of legitimacy to expand the operation and treat more people.
GH: Jeff says Davis wanted to force the federal government to examine his work, to give the serum a shot..This way he could scale up the operation without worrying about blowback from the FDA or state medical boards.
JN: My dealings with the government have been limited. But I thought, if we can get into settlement discussion, maybe something good, some sort of compromise that will allow Gary to treat people can be arrived at.
GH: This makes sense in light of some other things Jeff Nix told me, too. Jeff says Dr. Davis was somebody who cared deeply about his community, and his patients.
JN: He exuded a trust that was just palpable. I’m sure you’ve run into people that you haven’t been with them for long, but you just go, I believe this person. And people believed Gary, and people believed in Gary. And so I just really became a follower.
GH: At one point, Jeff followed Gary Davis all the way to Washington, DC. A sympathetic politician, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston, had put in a good word for Davis and was able to get him a seat with higher-ups at the NIH. Jeff tells me he’s never forgotten that meeting.
JN: So we went to Washington to try to talk to NIH and, and it not only we got not only do we not get it anywhere, but the director was just extremely hostile, and made fun of Gary’s disability. Gary’s got a really bad back and limps, and I’ll be damned if the guy didn’t say, “Well, I’m gonna look out the window and watch you come up our long sidewalk, and just see how well you do.” So that kind of set the tone. And sure enough, we got into the meeting and the director said “oh, been there, done that” he walked out.
GH: Do you think race played a role in how Davis was treated?
JN: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a Black thing. The people involved were Black.
GH: Involved with the serum you mean?
GH: So, the lawsuit was basically a ramrod, to open doors that seemed so firmly closed.
That didn’t happen. Jeff lost two suits in court…but, it did spread the word about the serum.
More and more people from the northside, the mostly Black part of town, started coming to Davis asking for serum.
JN: And they left going, this guy’s got something, we’re going to do everything we can to keep him going to keep him treating people. So it spread.
GH: Sounded like, you know, quite a few came after that. It wasn’t just one or two.
GH: So, what happened to Cowan?
JN: He continued to be treated, I continued to have some contact with him. And he continued to improve. It’s funny, you know, as a lawyer, you you come into people’s story, when it’s already underway, and then you get out of people’s stories before it’s over. So after the lawsuits, there was no connection between Bob and me. So I just, there wasn’t anything he needed, and there wasn’t anything I thought I could do for him. So I totally lost touch with him.
GH: My searches for Cowan came up empty. No Facebook pages. No valid current addresses. No obituaries. I thought I found a relative, called him up, started to explain everything and..
JC: That’s really good for you. Bye!
GH: Oh…ok, goodbye.
GH: He promptly hung up. I marked it in my notes: The fate of the first known person to have tried Gary Davis’ goat serum…as of right now at least, unknown.
GH: With the story of the theft covering their tracks in the fall of 1998 – Rocky and Precious talked more and more freely about using the goat serum… which, according to Rocky, started to work right after she first administered the serum to Precious in their hotel room in Tulsa…
RT: She started feeling better immediately. When I say immediately, it was like go to sleep, wake up and it was a whole nother person. It was to the point where I had to yell at her to stop and I had never had to tell that baby to stop or nothing because she didn’t have the energy to do nothing.
GH: Rocky says Precious was now well enough to fly. So Rocky claims she wrapped the serum in dry ice, stuffed it in her luggage and snuck it through the pre-9/11 security at the airport. She says she kept the injections going for her daughter at home.
But soon, Precious was due back at the NIH for routine blood work. At first, Rocky was hesitant to tell the girl’s doctors about the serum.
RT: Even NIH saw a difference. Everybody that knew her saw a difference.
GH: So you’re going into the NIH then at that point a month later, are you feeling nervous?
RT: Yes. Yes.
GH: Ok so you’re walking into the NIH, you’re feeling nervous and then they take the tests and what does it say?
RT: Her labs came back and they wanted to talk to me. It was like a team of doctors wanted to talk to me. And they took me in, and we’re talking and they say we have some good news.
GH: The doctors told Rocky that Precious’ viral load was undetectable. No sign of HIV in her blood.
RT: At this point, I’m in shock. I’m just sitting here, like I’m on edge. What’s going on? Precious was in the toy room. // When they told me that all I could do was cry. But in the meantime, nobody still didn’t know. Nobody still didn’t know.
GH: Eventually, Rocky decided to tell them that Precious was not on any of the medications that the NIH had given her, instead, she was using the stolen serum. She later told reporters about this:
Reporter: Then what happened?
Reporter: Nothing. Rocky says she tried to talk to health officials at the NIH about the serum. She was hoping she could help Dr. Davis get his serum approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (To Precious and Rocky) And what did they say?
RT: They wanted no parts of it. It was like nobody wanted to talk about it.
GH: Rocky and Precious pushed for answers, tried to spread the word about the serum. Precious was the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that focused on Aids…
Precious Thomas: (At the meeting as a child): I know many of you are looking at me and saying a little girl like me have to say my name is Precious Thomas.
PT: Who would have thought something this special could be found in a goat.
GH: The apparent success of the serum could have been a revelation that rocked the HIV research community, maybe even set the agenda for research to come… or maybe not – being undetectable isn’t the same as being cured…it was possible the little girl’s HIV levels might shoot right back up again. Besides…Individual anecdotes are no substitute for big, peer-reviewed clinical studies. The little girl’s improvement could have just been a fluke.
But – why did it seem like there was no interest at all at the NIH?
Rocky says she pushed for answers – and went higher and higher up the chain…
RT: Yea, we talked to Fauci. I know Fauci.
GH: That’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases then and now. During the Aids epidemic, Fauci was one of the people calling the shots in terms of research dollars and clinical trials. He eventually worked with activists and community leaders to better understand how researchers could be more inclusive in their trial designs.
By the time of Rocky’s revelation, Fauci had already heard of Gary Davis and his goat serum. He denounced it in that TV report Rocky saw on Bobby Cowan.
AF: Not only is there no evidence that it will work, there’s evidence to the contrary that it won’t work because this has been tried before in an even more sophisticated way…
GH: I asked Rocky about her talk with Fauci after Precious had seen success with Davis’ goat serum – wondering if the new information changed his mind about the treatment. Rocky says it did not.
RT: It was fine but he didn’t want to have nothing to do with it.
GH: Did he say why not?
RT: He said it’s because it’s been done before.
GH: Hmm. Obviously, at this time it seemed to be working at least. I don’t know I just have a hard time…
RT: It wasn’t no other medicine that she was taking that was working. They could have said whatever the hell they wanted to say. I knew what I had given her and I knew what she was taking.
GH: And still even in the face of that they didn’t want to have anything to do with the serum?
GH: Why do you think that is?
RT: umm, ummm, AIDS is a money making disease. It’s a money making disease.
GH: Rocky never provided me with any direct evidence that Davis’ serum was being suppressed for nefarious reasons – other than her memories of those subdued reactions from researchers.
But this sentiment was quickly becoming the prevailing narrative from proponents of Davis and his serum. I’d seen it online…heard it from NBA star John Salley….and now Rocky Thomas. The idea that federal health regulators were in bed with the pharmaceutical industry, and that it all added up to the government slowing a small-town doctor’s quest for the cure – in favor of big pharma companies working on their own treatments.
I wanted to understand exactly what happened at the NIH following Precious’ improvement, talk with people who were there…maybe had reasonable explanations for why the serum didn’t make a bigger splash at the agency. But a physician at the NIH who overlooked Precious’ recovery…someone who was shocked to learn about the serum in a 1998 interview with a reporter….
Reporter: What’s your response to this kind of information that I’m giving you now?
Physician: As far as her health or as far as protocol?
Physician: Well, you know, I really, I really don’t know exactly what type of you no repercussions this isn’t going to have.
She declined to speak with me.
When I reached out to Fauci’s staff, I was told he wasn’t available to talk about this, either. My questions went unanswered.
But perhaps adding to Rocky’s cynicism for how her revelation was handled by the agency, was the fact that Gary Davis couldn’t secure a clinical trial for his serum – even as the FDA sped up the approval process for other HIV drugs developed by big name pharmaceutical companies…
Reporter: After the clinical trials were completed some HIV drugs made it on the market last year in just under three months. Dr. Davis admits there are problems with his application, and he’s taken steps to correct them. But he stresses some patients simply don’t have time to wait for the FDA lengthy process of approving new drugs.
GD: If they’re concerned about this, they need to sit down and talk to me and I’ll say you take over let an independent group do it. But you’re just saying Look at this. Look at this as an alternative to patients that are dying from AIDS. What’s the problem?
GH: Rocky says that even though she had broken the NIH protocols, the doctors there continued to monitor Precious as their patient. And Rocky says she continued to give Precious the serum, instead of NIH medications..
RT: Put it like this. I gave her the serum until it was all gone. When I took what I took, that was it. But it wasn’t a whole lot that I had to give her. I just balanced it out. You know, I was telling myself, okay, don’t do that much. This is it, you don’t know if you can get anymore, you know? Yea, I had to ration it out.
GH: She claims the serum she smuggled back home from Oklahoma lasted until Precious graduated high school early at 15 years old – nearly 7 years. Rocky says it was the only medication she gave Precious to manage her illness. Then, when Precious left for college, Rocky says Precious finally started taking the antiretrovirals that had become so prevalent and effective.
Rocky claims she even shared some of the serum with three other people who were HIV positive.
RT: Everybody is fine and one person is deceased. And that’s because she od’ed.
GH: It all seemed…I don’t know…weird. The fact that the same vial of serum would last that long. I wanted to confirm everything Rocky told me with Precious herself. After all, this was as much her story to tell as it was Rocky’s. Precious was still a kid when all this happened – when she was given a controversial, experimental serum, talking to reporters in front of TV cameras.
Rocky gave me Precious’ number. I reached out. Left a message and when she called me back, I didn’t have a recorder on me.
But on the phone, Precious told me that she was willing to talk. But she wanted to do it alone. Without her mom there. I told her that was totally okay. And we’d set up a time.
Then she stopped answering my calls and texts. Rocky later told me Precious’ phone broke. Then she said the two hadn’t spoken in over a year.
So – In terms of what Precious thought about the serum – for now, all I had to go on was a brief appearance as a teenager in a local news story about the treatment.
PT: Somebody could have, would have, and should have. It could have been approved. Should have been approved. Would have been approved and it could have helped people.
GH: So it seems Precious still believed in the serum back then, in 2009. That was two years after the doctor’s death. But Rocky told me that Dr. Davis’ staff stayed in touch, and checked in on Precious..
RT: All the time. All the time. Still to today.
GH: You still get contacted by his staff to this day?
RT: Yea, mhm.
GH: And what do they ask you? Just how things are going?
RT: How things are going. Checking on Precious. Um…she had gotten sick back in, uh, maybe like six years ago she had gotten sick. She had gotten real sick. And I got in touch with them. Well, we already keep in contact but um, um, she had cryptococcal meningitis.
GH: That’s an illness that mainly affects people with compromised immune systems many in throes of AIDS come down with. It can be deadly. Rocky says Precious became so sick she was admitted to the hospital.
RT: And, um, she almost died.
GH: And so you contacted them when that happened?
RT: I contacted them and they made sure she got what I needed and I made sure she got what she needed and we walked up out of the children’s hospital.
GH: What did she need?
RT: It wasn’t what they were giving her in there. It was like after I gave her what was sent to me then she was doing fine.
GH: Was it um, was it the serum? Or some derivation of it.
RT: Yea, it was some serum.
GH: The goat serum?
RT: Yea, it was the goat serum.
GH: And this was five years ago?
RT: Yea, uh huh.
GH: Again, Rocky says this was around five years ago at the time that we spoke. That means if what Rocky claims is true, she was able to get her hands on more serum around the year 2015. Gary Davis was long dead by then.
Rocky told me that she got the serum sent in the mail, and administered it to Precious herself through an IV bag while they were alone in her private hospital room.
GH: Then what happened afterward?
PT: She started feeling better. She was able to get up and take a shower.
GH: How long did it take for it to kick in?
PT: Within a couple of hours.
GH: So what did her doctors make of all this?
PT: They don’t know no different. LAUGHS. Still to today. I didn’t say anything and Precious never said nothing. No.
GH: After our phone conversation, I messaged Rocky asking if she could put me in touch with whoever allegedly gave her the serum this second time. She didn’t answer. Only reacted to it with a thumbs down. Her lips were sealed.
But, that means – potentially…somebody out there, somebody who was close to Davis, knows how to make it – or at least how to store it.
Next time on SERUM, we meet the last known people who witnessed the serum being made and used – at a compound on the West coast of Africa.
DH: And within an hour or two, these people seemed to move better …
But the doctor seems to be falling apart…
DH: He was very angry. He was talking 90 miles an hour. You’d say he’s close to crazy. He’s the sort of person you see standing on the street corner shouting things.
Serum is a production of WHYY’s The Pulse and Local Trance Media.
You can find us on Twitter and instagram at serumpodcast.
Our engineer is Charlie Kaier.
Serum is produced and edited by Maiken Scott, with additional editing from Liz Tung and Jad Sleiman, and support from Lindsay Lazarski and Nichole Currie.
It’s written and reported by me, Grant Hill.
Serum was made possible in part with support from the Commonwealth Fund.
Original music for this podcast was produced by me, and Brandon Tomei.
Our artwork was created by Michael Dandley. Graphic design by Myth Partners in Philadelphia.
Special thanks to Mary Purcell, Joe Cashman, and the Hill family for their support.collapse
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Brought to you by Serum
A Black doctor, a potential cure for AIDS, and the quest to find out what happened to it. A limited run podcast production of WHYY's The Pulse and Local Trance Media.