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.”