With his roommate in dire health from the coronavirus last spring, it did not take much for John Hollis to believe he would also contract the highly infectious, deadly disease. He was so concerned about what could happen that he penned a letter to his teenage son, Davis, in case "things went downhill fast," Hollis said.
It turned out that Hollis unknowingly already had Covid-19 and may have unwittingly infected his roommate.
Hollis, the communications manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, learned in July that he fell into a rare category of people whose blood could help scientists understand Covid-19 and potentially treat those who fall ill.
Covid-19, it seems, cannot harm him, said Dr. Lance Liotta, a George Mason University pathologist and bioengineer who is leading the school's clinical trials on antibodies.
Hollis, 54, a former journalist, learned that his blood is fortified with so-called super antibodies — antibodies that neutralize the virus, which, even when diluted 10,000 times, still resists Covid-19, Liotta said.
It is a medical phenomenon found in less than 5 percent of the population who have contracted the coronavirus, a study indicates, making Hollis and his blood valuable resources in identifying potential treatments for Covid-19, Liotta said.
"Through John and others, we have been propelled into exciting new science," Liotta said. "Learning about his antibodies offers us new ways to fight Covid."
In short, using Hollis' antibodies — the Y-shaped proteins in blood used by the immune system to identify and fight bacteria and viruses — Liotta and his team will, as part of their trials, "understand exponentially better how to kill the coronavirus and mass produce antibodies like John's" for the general population to protect it from the virus, like the drug Regeneron, which President Donald Trump took after he announced in early October that he had tested positive.
"If that sounds crazy to you, imagine how it feels to me," said Hollis, a former sports journalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
More than 20 million people in the United States have contracted the deadly virus as vaccines slowly become available. But treatment for the virus is still necessary, which makes Hollis' "super" antibodies inestimably important.
His story began after he took his son, Davis, on a trip to Europe in early March. Not long after they returned from London and Paris and just before flights into the United States were grounded, Hollis experienced congestion, which he associated with the normal sinus issues that come with that time of the year for him.
The symptoms passed quickly, but his roommate, who did not want to be named, became devastatingly ill with Covid-19 for a month. Fearing for his friend, Hollis stood by his door early every morning and listened for movement to ensure that he was still alive. Hollis consistently wiped down the townhouse they shared and confined himself to his bedroom.
"He was scared to death," said Hollis' closest friend, Kevin W. Tydings, a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I called him just about every day for two weeks, checking on him. I was worried for him. He figured he would get it. But to his credit, he manned up and stayed there, because he didn't want to go out and give it to someone else."
He was especially worried about his son. Hollis said he was "petrified" that Davis may have contracted Covid-19 on their trip. He was also scared that he could die from the virus and miss seeing his son grow into a man.
"I was at a strange peace with whatever happened to me but saddened by the prospect of perhaps not living to see my son hit those major life milestones, such as graduating from high school, college and getting married and becoming a father himself," Hollis said. "April 8, I sat down and wrote a letter to my son, for him to have if I wasn't here. I wrote the first sentence, and I cried. I read it every month, and I cry right away. ... I'm just grateful I didn't have to give it to him."
But Hollis did not fall noticeably ill. In mid-July, he volunteered to participate in a coronavirus study on campus, enthusiastically backed by new George Mason University President Gregory Washington and led by Liotta, a former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health.
Soon after, Liotta called Hollis one night to tell him that he harbored "super" antibodies.
Hollis said he remembered feeling "utter shock."
"Here I was, scared for my roommate and fearful that I would contract Covid," he said. "Instead, I had had it already and likely gave it to him. He got a bad deal. I feel so badly for him. And I can't get it? I'm impervious to it? My antibodies can help modern science? It was a lot to process."
George Mason University is one of 13 NIH-sponsored Biosafety-Level 3 Biomedical Research Laboratories that have the facilities to handle live Covid-19 samples. Liotta and his team were able to pinpoint when Hollis had the virus. Hollis was relieved that his son did not contract it.
"He's in excellent health," Hollis said.
Since August, Hollis has given blood and saliva samples about every two weeks for lab testing and experiments. Liotta said that the levels of Hollis' antibodies not only have sustained, but they they have also proven effective in killing six different strains of the coronavirus.
Liotta's team found seven other people with "super" antibodies for the clinical trial. Hollis is different from the others in that his antibodies have maintained at least 90 percent of their strength nine months after he had the coronavirus. Most similar antibodies dissipate in 60 to 90 days, Liotta said.
Furthermore, Liotta said, Hollis' "super" antibodies will help in the next phase of the clinical trial — testing it in those who have taken the vaccine to make sure their antibodies have been elevated through the injection.
"It's all very exciting," he said. "And it's all because of our patients like John."
Other public health officials are excited, too, like Dr. Pierre Vigilance, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at George Washington University School of Public Health, who is founder and principal at HealthUp Strategic Advisors.
Vigilance, who led the local emergency response efforts to the H1N1 outbreak in the Washington, D.C., area in 2009, said he understands Liotta's excitement.
"Think about a key and a lock," Vigilance said. "Viruses have a key to our cells. That coronavirus key is the spiked protein, which can pick the lock and get into our cells. It's very effective at doing that. An antibody is like chewing gum that hardens around the key. The key won't go in the lock. So it prevents viruses from getting into cells.
"'Super' antibodies are more effective at stopping the viruses from getting into our cells," he added. "About 75 percent of coronavirus patients have binding antibodies, which do not neutralize the virus. Less than 5 percent of coronavirus patients have the 'super' antibodies, making them super important to replicate and use in therapeutic modality. The fact that so few people make these kinds of antibodies means that it's important to learn how to harvest and how to replicate that."
Hollis remains astounded by the discovery, but he still wears a mask and practices social distancing. The gravity of his situation has also weighed on him for months.
"To say this whole surreal experience has been tough to digest is an understatement," he said. "Dr. Liotta and his team are amazing. On the one hand, I am eternally grateful and feel blessed beyond measure to still be healthy and somehow have this rare natural protection against a deadly virus that is now killing more than 3,000 Americans a day and adversely affecting everybody, but especially African Americans and others of color.
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"But, on the other hand, you need only turn on the TV or glance at any newspaper to see the large swath of death and misery from all around the globe as a result of the virus. It makes me ask: 'Why me? Why have I been spared when so many others weren't?'"
He said he has stayed up late nights since July pondering his experience.
"The truth is I could come up with no real answers other than perhaps God has a plan for me," he said. "Or maybe I'm just lucky as hell.
"Either way, I do know that I've long preached to my son that we all share a responsibility to make the world a better place than it was when we arrived. Never in a million years could I have envisioned this being how I might help do just that."