A strange pandemic for John Hollis, naturally immune to COVID

Will his experience help scientists find new treatments for vulnerable patients?
John Hollis, in Atlanta to visit his son this November and attend the screening of the new Black Panther movie, poses for a portrait at Centennial Olympic Park. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

John Hollis, in Atlanta to visit his son this November and attend the screening of the new Black Panther movie, poses for a portrait at Centennial Olympic Park. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

It was summer 2020 and John Hollis, a publicist at George Mason University, was asking a scientist about his research on COVID-19 antibodies, when the scientist turned the tables. The scientist, Lance Liotta, asked his own question: Would Hollis like to join the study as a subject?

Less than a week later, Liotta was standing with his staff fixated on the computer screen of his lab assistant, marveling at the numbers representing Hollis’s blood sample. Liotta marched back to his office to call Hollis.

“He says, ‘Are you sitting down?’” Hollis recalls. “‘Because not only did you have COVID, and you didn’t know it, but you have super antibodies in your blood—that make you immune.’”

Not only was Hollis almost completely immune to COVID-19 then, he has continued to be, even as the virus has mutated to new variants, subsequent testing shows. He might even be immune to other diseases, though testing hasn’t confirmed that yet. And unlike the vaccines, whose power fades and requires booster shots, so far his COVID immunity keeps going strong.

“I had my blood drawn just recently, the first time in almost a year and a half, okay?” Hollis said. “The super antibodies are still at a maximum level. Still. It’s ridiculous.”

So in fall of 2020 Hollis went from fearing for his life along with the rest of the country to a strange state of freedom. He continued to follow precautions. But as hospitals overflowed and millions were sickened, Hollis started going out for haircuts again. He went to the grocery store with a new confidence “that it wouldn’t be a life or death experience,” he said.

Hollis, a former reporter for the AJC, has been interviewed by news organizations from his home town paper in Virginia to the BBC with its worldwide reach.

Tests indicate that even if his blood were diluted 10,000 times, it still kills 90% of the coronavirus.

No one knows exactly why.

“His antibodies recognize different regions of the virus, instead of just one region,” among other strengths, Liotta said in an interview with the AJC. “That’s a good thing.”

“But — why? Where that came from from him? I don’t know.”

Reports worldwide suggest scientists have identified just a handful of people with immunity similar to Hollis’.

Scared for his life

For Hollis, the pandemic started in earnest in spring 2020 when his housemate became seriously ill. Tests weren’t available to him yet but the housemate’s symptoms matched what they’d been hearing about the coronavirus. The housemate toughed it out at home.

Hollis spent that period in fear for his life as well as his housemate’s. He cleaned, sanitized and distanced, and left food for the housemate at his door. Hollis wrote his teenaged son a goodbye letter, in case.

As his housemate recovered, however, Hollis remained as hearty and strong as he’d always been. The worst he’s ever had is chickenpox, and the occasional cold or runny nose.

All he had in 2020 was chest and sinus congestion that he thought was from pollen. That was in late March, after he returned from a trip to Europe with his son. The housemate got sick the next week, at the beginning of April.

What Hollis and Liotta’s team know now is that Hollis had COVID, but he never knew it. His body detected the virus and began manufacturing antibodies far more potent than other people’s. Later, as the virus mutated into different variants, those variants eluded some people’s antibodies by shape-shifting the outer spikes that their body was watching for. But Hollis’s blood is looking for more than just the outer spikes.

He has an unusually high number of antibodies, and they last.

Perhaps 2% of the subjects in Liotta’s study had very strong immunity, if not as strong as Hollis’. But theirs waned; Hollis’ didn’t, later studies have showed.

The findings were completely unexpected, Liotta said.

“Here’s somebody who had very high levels and he never had any real symptomatic COVID,” Liotta said. “And so that showed me that what we think controls the antibody level might not be what we scientists all thought in the past.”

Hope for new treatments

Hollis used to live in Atlanta, but now lives in Virginia and works at George Mason University, where the research on him was done. He still spends time in Atlanta, where his son goes to high school.

On a recent Wednesday he was relaxing downtown in CNN Center, waiting for his son to get out of school so they could attend the Black Panther sequel at the Fox together. Hollis talked about whether his blood might be able to save others’ lives.

Liotta says the value of Hollis’ antibodies is now in helping scientists understand new ways to combat Long Covid and to better protect immune deficient people who don’t have successful responses to the vaccines.

“We can help a lot of people that way,” he said.

Hollis notes that his blood is type O negative, commonly called a universal donor, because it can be given to people with any type of blood.

Hollis is still telling his story, hoping it will help other people. He tells interviewers then and now, “it’s been surreal.”