'My Super-Antibodies Can Defeat Any COVID Variant'

It was a little after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, when I received the phone call of a lifetime.

On the other end of the line was Dr. Lance Liotta, the George Mason University researcher who was calling to not only tell me that I had unknowingly contracted COVID-19 back in late March, but that I possessed extremely rare "super" antibodies in my blood that had killed the virus and rendered me permanently immune to the dreaded killer of well north of a half million Americans, and more than 2.6 million people overall. These "super" antibodies were so potent that they still killed 90 percent of the virus even after my blood had been diluted 10,000 times. In addition, these life-saving, internal defense mechanisms remain highly concentrated in my blood even now, long after the virus had been completely eradicated.

How's that for suddenly drinking from the fire hose?

The rest of humanity was gripped with a palpable sense of fear and growing panic over a murderous pandemic that was spreading unchecked all over the globe like a runaway locomotive, destroying lives and ravaging the global economy along the way.

And I'd just been told that I was an outlier of epic proportions and completely impervious to it.

"So let me just make sure I got this straight," I finally mustered after asking Dr. Liotta to repeat himself several times. "You're telling me I'm immune to a virus that is now killing thousands of Americans per day. Is that what I'm hearing you say?"
Dr. Liotta, who is the co-director and the co-founder of Mason's Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) and the former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), confirmed that I had indeed heard him correctly.

I was too stunned to say much else of consequence at that moment and began trying the best I could to somehow absorb what I'd just been told. This was beyond surreal, and there were soon a million questions racing through my head following the initial shock.

Why me? How was that I had somehow been spared when so many other people hadn't? How certain was Dr. Liotta and his research team of what I was being told? How was it that I NEVER for one second thought I had it? Could I have contracted the virus while traveling in Europe with my teenage son earlier in March? Had he been exposed to it as well if I had been infected while we were together in London and Paris? Does this mean I can simply just give my blood to somebody sick from the virus and it would help them?

"Your blood is very effective at eliminating the virus," Dr. Liotta told me.
I'm not sure what specifically I had expected when I had volunteered just a few days earlier to contribute to his antibody study of George Mason University people who had already tested positive for COVID-19 or suspected they had been exposed.

But it's safe to say this wasn't it.

I didn't know it at the time, but my unlikely story had begun after becoming heavily congested to start the last week of March 2020. I had NO other symptoms whatsoever besides repeatedly having to blow my nose. Pollen was everywhere that time of year as per usual, so I just naturally attributed my sudden nasal issues to that. I loaded up on Benadryl and was feeling 100 percent again by week's end four days later. There was never as much as a single thought that I had contracted COVID-19.

John Hollis. Ron Aira/George Mason University

I soon learned otherwise.

The George Mason antibody study, which began in April, was unique in that it was a saliva-based test rather a blood-based one and would eventually be used to screen students, faculty and staff. Mason was among the nation's first universities to take this approach in the fight against the spread of the virus and maintains one of the only 13 National Institutes of Health-sponsored Biosafety Level 3 Biomedical Research Laboratories equipped to handle live COVID-19 samples from which Dr. Liotta and his team could quickly test.

As George Mason University's Communications Manager, I had received word in mid-July that the scientists had come across some positive initial results.
I soon met with Dr. Liotta at his office on George Mason's Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Virginia to discuss their findings. I've known him for a few years now after having previously worked with him on other projects, so we've had a good relationship for a while. I was about to leave his office when I casually mentioned to Dr. Liotta that the guy I lived with had become terribly sick with the virus in early April. I had been so certain at that time that a similar fate or worse also awaited me that I even penned a letter to my teenage son just in case. I considered myself incredibly lucky to have gone unscathed.

Or so I believed at the time.

So I figured there was no harm in asking if I could join the several hundred volunteers who had already participated in the study. Dr. Liotta agreed and I returned a few days later to give blood and saliva samples as a late addition to the research. The whole process took maybe 30 minutes.

The medical equivalent of the Holy Grail

I was still of the belief that I had somehow dodged the bullet back in April and never even considered that I might have already contracted the virus, let alone that it may have been I who passed it on to my housemate. I had no reason to anticipate anything whatsoever coming of my lab results.

But after further careful analysis of my blood, Dr. Liotta and his team soon confirmed that I had contracted an American strain of the virus while also explaining to me exactly how and where the "super" antibodies had attacked and entirely eradicated the virus from my body. My blood has since proven equally as effective in killing every different strain of COVID-19, including the latest highly transmissible variants from both the U.K. and South Africa. I can't even be a carrier for the virus.

I've been told this is somewhat akin to the medical equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

I was one of eight people who participated in the study found to have "super" antibodies, with each person showing varying levels of natural protection from the virus. In addition to its ability to so effectively neutralize COVID-19, my blood is unique because the "super" antibodies in it have remained highly concentrated nearly a year after my infection. Most people's antibodies typically wane significantly after 60 to 90 days.

How and why my body does this remains the million dollar question, but it means that I and others like me are best-suited to possibly help scientists mass reproduce antibodies like mine in the hopes of creating a treatment for COVID-19 and a lasting and far more effective vaccine.

It's been sobering to think that my blood and that of others like me could potentially save thousands of lives or perhaps more.

So then imagine the irony of my having been randomly selected seven times for COVID testing between late September 2020 and March 2021. Each of the occasions—all with negative results—were part of George Mason University's comprehensive Safe Return to Campus plan. It's made for some good laughs and I've never once minded the very slight inconvenience. It's like taking a test when you've been given all the answers in advance.

I've been very fortunate and feel blessed beyond measure.

Nevertheless, I continue to take every precaution such as wearing masks, regularly washing and sanitizing my hands and maintaining proper social distance. I'm a former sportswriter, so there's always an appropriate sports analogy handy and I've likened this unique situation to having a no-hitter going into the 9th inning of a baseball game. I plan to continue doing what I've been doing all along.

Still, it remains a lot to digest, even in the months that have passed since I first became aware of this stunning news. I'm not sure where I'd be without my cadre of close friends from high school and college who have helped me stay sane.
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.

John Hollis is the Communications Manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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