In March 2020, Dave, Lisa Rea’s partner, fell ill shortly after returning from Cheltenham.
He came back and everything went to hell,” says Lisa. “He’s a really healthy guy. He’s done half of the Ironmans and triathlons, but he was really sick, breathless, and could barely make it up the stairs. He was in rags.”
Due to the criteria at the time, Dave was unable to get an official test for Covid, but the family have no doubt that he had contracted the virus. It was confirmed with a test when he contracted Covid again in December 2021… and for a third time in June this year.
In fact, to date, Covid has entered Lisa’s home about six times. “Earlier this year the kids started falling,” reveals the Dublin mother of three. “One got it in January and another six weeks later in March, then our other daughter got it. We just kept getting hit.”
But not Lisa or her eight-year-old son Paddy. Like all of us, Lisa was unvaccinated when she was first exposed to the virus in March 2020. She had shared a bed with her partner and trying to set up a quarantine zone in their home felt untenable at any point given the small children to consider.
The 37-year-old, now fully stung, continues to dodge even the most contagious variants. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “I went out a lot and got back to normal. Either it’s waiting for me in the tall grass, or maybe I’m immune.” She jokingly adds, “Maybe me and my son are just made of stronger stuff.”
She laughs, but there might be a grain of truth in the notion that we’re not all wired the same when it comes to Covid resistance.
A landmark study, the Viral Resistance Project, is currently underway to find out if some people are actually made of if not “stronger” but different “stuff.”
“I don’t think we could call them ‘superhumans,'” says Professor Cliona O’Farrelly, principal investigator on the Virus Resistance Project and Chair of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College Dublin. “But there are people whose innate immune system is particularly good at fighting off the virus.”
The research first started with a small group of healthcare workers at St James’s Hospital before vaccines were introduced. 26 people were found to have been exposed to the virus but not contracted it. Eighteen months later and after the vaccine was rolled out, only nine remain Covid-free.
“But that means nine are still resistant even though Omicron is so widespread, so they’re really valuable because we’re really sure now that they were resistant in the first wave, were exposed before vaccination and still aren’t.” have been infected since vaccination,” says Prof O’Farrelly.
“It really convinces me that there’s a subset of people out there that are really resistant — we just have to hold onto that to find them.”
Maria O’Dwyer wonders if she could be one of them. In January 2021, their daughter, a frontline doctor at a Dublin hospital, fell ill with Covid.
“We live together in a small house and I haven’t locked it,” says Maria, who is in her early 60s. Now fully vaccinated and refreshed, Maria was recently re-challenged. “I was at a birthday party a few weeks ago and almost everyone at the party caught Covid,” she says. “I have a test: negative. So maybe I’m resistant!”
In the early days of lockdown, Maria was very cautious and distanced herself from her daughter as much as possible after her positive PCR, but has been flying lately and regularly using public transport.
“I’m shocked I didn’t have it,” she says. “In the past few years I’ve had four PCR tests and several antigens because I was afraid I might be asymptomatic and carry it and I wouldn’t want to go out and maybe spread it, but they’ve always been negative.”
She would like to participate in the VRP study. “Aside from finding out if I’m resistant, it would be great if they could find something that would trigger a new vaccine that could prevent people from getting it entirely,” she says.
This is one of the main goals of the study – to identify the genomic signature of superdrug resistance in humans and potentially use this data to design new, better vaccines and therapies.
It’s a result that greatly motivates Jeni Pim’s desire to participate in the research. In December 2020 Jeni’s husband Nigel fell ill with Covid. The family had been together over Christmas but when Jeni and the couple’s two children did PCRs after Nigel was admitted to hospital, only Nigel, 50, had tested positive. He passed away two weeks later, on January 14, 2021.
The idea that she might be naturally resistant is bittersweet for Jeni, but she wants something positive to come out of the research like a future vaccine. “I definitely think there has to be something genetic,” says Jeni, 49, a microbiologist from Waterford.
“My daughter drove friends to test centers. She has always worn a mask but it would have been around her before she tested positive and she never had it.”
Jeni tests twice a week and hopes to get her second refresher soon. “I don’t want to get it [Covid],” she says. “I think it would scare me a lot, but I have no idea how I managed to get it. There has to be something genetic to explain that.”
To date, 16,500 Irish have applied to join the SFI-funded and Trinity College-led Viral Resistance Project.
Questionnaires will be sent out to try and confirm who meets the requirements of definitely having been exposed to Covid before vaccination and continuing to have resistance after vaccination.
Those who meet the criteria must then provide a blood sample. “Some of these we will use for DNA that we will send to our collaborators in France, then we will also do a biological analysis of their innate immune system to see if we can find the signature of their better innate immune response,” says Prof. O ‘Farrelly.
The results of the smaller study of healthcare workers – which is also part of an international study called The Covid Human Genetic Effort – are expected later this year.
“Their genomes are being sequenced and we’re going to look at that right now,” says Prof. O’Farrelly. “We will be getting some DNA results in this small group over the next few months.”
For the larger group, it will take next year before even preliminary results are published. But based on her experience studying exposure of Irish pregnant women to hepatitis C from contaminated anti-D in the late 1970s and early 1990s, Prof O’Farrelly denies that up to 20 percent of people have this “super” innate immune system could .
And could it be that this super resistance not only protects against Covid but also against other viruses?
“It again comes down to understanding what the resistance mechanism is,” says Prof. O’Farrelly. “It may be that there are some people who are resistant to all viruses, not just Sars-Cov-2, and if we could prove that, that would be a great discovery.
“Our goal is to have a test where we can tell everyone who is resistant, something that is tremendously valuable and will have a tremendous impact over the long term.”
Lisa knows she wouldn’t qualify for the study as there’s no PCR proving Dave definitely had Covid in March 2020, but she’s not too disappointed.
“I’m intrigued, but probably not intrigued enough to do it,” she says. “It would be nice to know if I had it but even when Dave had it after Christmas I was doing antigens almost twice a day and had two PCRs and they were all negative. At this stage, I feel like I’ll never understand it…but I probably just jinxed myself by saying that!”
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/super-resistance-the-search-for-irish-people-with-covid-19-immunity-41838092.html Super resilience: The search for Irish people with Covid-19 immunity