What it's like being one of the few people with 'super antibodies' against COVID-19
'The whole experience has been beyond surreal,' says Virginia's John Hollis
John Hollis's blood may hold the key for a better COVID-19 vaccine.
That's because the Virginia man is one of the rare COVID-19 survivors who has what are called "super antibodies" that are extremely effective at neutralizing the virus.
That means Hollis is practically immune to COVID-19. What's more, his super antibodies may even provide immunity to the new coronavirus variants that existing vaccines are less effective against.
"The whole experience has been beyond surreal," Hollis told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"You can't turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without hearing about all the misery and death all over the world. And, you know, especially in the beginning, you just wonder: Why me? Why have I been blessed beyond measure when so many other people haven't? It's been a lot to digest."
A roommate scare
In early March 2020, before borders started closing, Hollis had just returned from a trip to Europe with his 16-year-old son, when he started to feel congested.
It wasn't severe, and it went away after a couple days, so he chalked it up to seasonal allergies and didn't think any more about it.
A few weeks later, in early April, his roommate tested positive for COVID-19 and became severely ill.
"There was so much we didn't know about the virus. We knew it was lethal at the time. I could see my housemate was very, very sick. In fact, the virus gave him a really rough ride. And so, you know, I was scared," he said.
"Not just what would happen to me, but just the idea of not being there possibly for my son to see him hit those milestones — graduate from high school, get married, go to college, all that stuff. And that's what broke my heart."
I don't think I'm the mythical white unicorn or the Easter Bunny or anything.- John Hollis, man with COVID-19 'super antibodies'
In fact, he was so worried that he wrote a letter to his son just in case he contracted the virus and things "went south quickly."
"Thank God I never had to give him that letter," he said.
His roommate eventually recovered, and Hollis never fell ill. He figured he'd just gotten lucky.
"There was never even a thought that I had gotten the virus," he said. "It wasn't until late July when I found out not only that I'd had the virus, but I had these super antibodies that make me immune."
Discovered by chance
Hollis is a communications manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where Dr. Lance Liotta, a pathologist and bioengineer, is leading clinical trials on COVID-19 antibodies.
In July, Hollis was helping Liotta's team spread the word about the study and recruit on-campus volunteers who had either recovered from COVID-19 or believed they had been exposed to it.
"Again, there was never any thought that I had gotten sick, so I never even joined the study," Hollis said.
"Wasn't until mid-July, I met with Dr. Liotta to talk about their initial results for the first three months of their study, and ... I was literally leaving and I just happened to mention ... my housemate had the virus, had gotten really sick, and then I'd gotten lucky and somehow avoided it. And that is what started to get the ball rolling."
Liotta tested Hollis's saliva and blood and discovered that not only had Hollis already contracted COVID-19 — likely that brief period of congestion in early March — but that he had "super antibodies" that neutralize the virus.
It's a medical phenomenon that occurs in fewer than five per cent of people who contract COVID-19, according to a June study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health,
"I don't think I'm the mythical white unicorn or the Easter Bunny or anything," Hollis said. "There aren't many people, but there are a few."
The team at George Mason has since collected his blood at several different points in time.
Liotta told BBC News it's a "goldmine to study different ways to attack the virus." His antibodies are so powerful they can resist the disease even when diluted 10,000 times, he said.
Dr. Pierre Vigilance, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at George Washington University School of Public Health, compared it to a lock and key.
"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," he told NBC News.
"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."
Liotta said in an email that patients with super antibodies may also be resistant to the rapidly-spreading coronavirus variants out of South Africa, Brazil and the U.K.
He said that antibodies in the lab are able to recognize "different regions of the virus, not just the spike protein."
"If the virus is a variant with a specific mutation in one region of the spike protein, then there is a good chance that the patient may have an antibody against a different region of the spike or a different protein region that is not mutated."
That's welcome news after data from the Novavax clinical trial in South Africa showed not only that a rapidly-spreading coronavirus variant could dampen the effect of the vaccine, it could also evade natural immunity in people who had been previously infected.
"And so you can see the implications for a better, more effective vaccine," Hollis said.
Medical mistrust in Black communities
Hollis said he believes it's especially important for him to participate in the study because he's African American.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black people in both the U.S. and Canada, and yet it can be difficult to recruit Black people into medical studies because of a long history of medical exploitation.
Hollis cited the the Tuskegee Study as an example. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the effects on syphilis on hundreds of Black men in exchange for free medical exams, free meals and burial insurance.
The scientists told the participants they were being treated for their diseases, but they were not — even after effective medicine was developed.
"People don't understand the African American community's mistrust in the medical community. It's not just paranoia. It's historically rooted," Hollis said.
"But my thing is we need to move forward. The African American community has been adversely affected by this more than anybody else. So we need to be involved. We need to honour those people who came ahead of us to make sure this doesn't happen again by being involved. And I love to get that message out as much as I could."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with John Hollis produced by Mehek Mazhar.