Denby Fawcett: Some People Have Never Had Covid. Scientists Want to Know Why - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

By now, it seems everyone has either caught Covid-19 or can name a long list of friends who have succumbed to it, especially during the recent super infectious omicron-variant surges.

Yet after two and a half years of the pandemic, some people remain Covid-free, never getting sick even after repeated exposure to the virus and in some cases living with people who had it.

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Daniel Ross is one of them. He says he has been tested for Covid two or three dozen times after finding out he had been in close contact with a person who tested positive. He also continues to be tested routinely as a hospital employee. But he remains coronavirus free.

Ross is a registered nurse on a surgical ward at The Queen’s Medical Center — a unit that became a Covid ward during the delta surge. At the height of the pandemic, he was in close contact each day with dozens of infected patients.

Then, coming home from the hospital, he faced additional exposure after his daughter and her boyfriend, who were living on his property, came down with the virus.

Ross also has had to fly to the mainland numerous times during the pandemic in his role as president of the 4,000-member Hawaii Nurses Association. That means he has potentially been exposed on each of the long plane trips when removing his mask to eat or drink something.

Yet, time after time, he tested negative. Ross is what’s lightheartedly called a “Covid super-dodger” or a “Covid virgin” — a phenomenon that has captured the attention of researchers in the U.S. and many other countries. It’s one of the many mysteries of the pandemic.

Ross attributes his continuing virus-free status to adhering to all safety protocols, including wearing close-fitting KN-95 masks everywhere, even outdoors in crowded settings and to what he shrugs off as “a little luck.”

Sign at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport ‘Mask Required’. September 18, 2020
Masks were required at airports and on planes due to the coronavirus pandemic until April, but passengers still faced the risk of exposure when they took off face coverings to eat and drink. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Liz Schwartz, owner of Coffee Talk in Kaimuki, also has escaped Covid despite high levels of exposure from her customers who came to the cafe when they didn’t know they were infected and her sick relatives at home.

She quarantined for the 10 days that were once required after close exposure when her husband and her daughter, who were living with her in the same house, caught the coronavirus.

“My husband and I slept in the same bed. We ate meals together. We kissed. We are very close. It’s crazy. I feel if anyone should have gotten Covid it would be me,” she said.

About three months later, Schwartz shared food and car rides with friends who were in town for a funeral service during which it turned out almost everyone else caught the virus.

She spent a lot of time recently with a friend who was just back from Las Vegas but unaware that she had caught the virus on her trip.

“Oh, my God, I have been exposed to Covid so many times, yet I have never tested positive,” says Schwartz.

She says she probably should refrain from talking about her good luck and what she believes is her strong natural immune system. “I might jinx myself. I’ll probably come down with Covid tomorrow.”

liz schwartz coffee covid denby column
Coffee Talk owner Liz Schwartz believes she was likely exposed to Covid in her cafe and at home, but she never tested positive. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2021

I feel the same way. My number for Covid-19 has not come up yet. But I don’t want to talk about it out of concern I will bachi myself and get hit with a very bad case. It also seems bad form to even mention it when so many others have suffered or died from the disease.

Epidemiologist Tim Brown says if someone were to say to him that after dodging the virus for more than two years they probably won’t ever get it, he would say back: “Don’t bet on it.”

“They have probably not yet been exposed to a large enough dose of the virus or they may have already had Covid and not known it,” he says.

Brown, an infectious disease specialist and a senior fellow at the East-West Center, points out that researchers have found genetic mutations that offer true protection but only from a few viruses.

One was the discovery in the 1990s that just 1% of Europeans were born with a rare mutation of the genetic receptor known as CCR-5. That made their bodies able to resist HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. CCR-5 is the receptor that allows the AIDs virus to invade cells to launch the deadly illness. A mutated version of it turned out to be highly protective.

Knowledge of the particular CCR-5 mutation led to new protocols for treating HIV, including bone marrow transplants that resulted in two people being cured of HIV, the only two known to completely kick AIDS.

Scientists also have found a genetic mutation called FUT2 that blocks certain strains of the norovirus from entering cells in the human digestive tract to cause an infected person to get severe gastroenteritis.

It is not known yet if there is a similar genetic blocker for Covid-19, but an international consortium called the Covid Human Genetic Effort last year began collecting saliva samples from thousands of volunteers to try to find out.

“As with any super power, though, a bona fide resistance to SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid-19 — would likely be very rare,” said Dr. Helen Su of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections and a co-leader of the consortium.

Scientists on the team are particularly interested in finding out if a mutation of a genetic receptor called ACE-2 might make some people resistant to the virus. Covid must bind to ACE-2 to enter and infect cells. A weakened or defective version of that portal might explain why some people have evaded the virus.

Daniel Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses' Association
Daniel Ross, a registered nurse, hasn’t tested positive for the coronavirus despite contact with many patients who had it. Courtesy: Daniel Ross

Another possible reason for Covid resistance that’s been studied is some people who have remained virus-free might have natural immunity gained from repeated past exposure to other coronaviruses such as the common cold.

Also, some individuals may have avoided infection because their immune systems produce a plentitude of type 1 interferons, the powerful proteins that can stop replication of the virus before it has time to latch on to human cells.

But just because certain people have dodged the SARS2 coronavirus up until now, it’s unlikely their good luck will last forever, Brown says.

Scientists are still in the early stages of trying to find a genetic blocker and even if they do they expect only a rare few will have it.

And as Brown mentioned before, the answer to why some people have successfully eluded Covid might be because they simply haven’t been exposed to a high enough dose of it.

Also and importantly, just because some seem immune to the current variants of the virus, it is evolving as it constantly mutates, sometimes finding new and more powerful ways to make itself even more infectious.

If we are certain about anything about this pandemic now, it is that the virus driving it is highly efficient.

So people who have dodged infection so far should refrain from celebrating their good luck by jumping onto a crowded dance floor or going maskless in crowded places even outdoors.

In my own case, I remain cautious, certain I will get infected. It is just a matter of time.


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Neal Milner: Can Hawaii Remain A 1980s Oasis In A Modern Political World?


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

"Scientists Want to Know Why"Well then, what is the contact information for those scientists ? If they want to know, why not provide their contact info for those of us that never seem to have had it ? Big long article, talk about everything except what the headline actually asks.

Curtis_Kropar · 1 week ago

The CDC told the NYT that they are not releasing large amounts of data because they don't want it to be "misinterpreted". Data is data. How does one misinterpret it?

RedStateHawaii · 1 week ago

Live in a house with 9 occupants ranging in age 93 to 6! I'm the only one not to get covid. Spend most of my time outdoors and use my own plates and other utensils! Also, got a good supply of Clorox!

Richard · 1 week ago

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