It was one of those rare, almost magical, summer evenings. Warm enough to sit outside in a T-shirt, listening to birdsong; warm enough to stay out late, savouring a meal; warm enough not to notice night settling in, the visitor that slipped into the party unannounced.
It was 11 June 2021. Jenny McCann sat in the garden of her home in north London with her twin brother, John Eyers, their parents, Lyn and Derek, and Jenny’s husband and children. It was her son’s 10th birthday party. John and their parents had come down from Southport in Merseyside for the weekend to celebrate. Jenny made Lebanese lamb and parathas. The adults were buzzed on wine, the kids on birthday cake. “Life felt really good,” says Jenny.
She can’t remember how the argument about the Covid vaccine started. “John started saying really crazy things that didn’t make sense,” she says. “About how people were only getting the vaccine for free McDonald’s, and there was formaldehyde in it.” The rest of the family remonstrated with him, pulling out their phones to factcheck what he was saying. But John was unmoving. “He kept saying: ‘I won’t be a guinea pig.’”
Eventually, he made a joke and changed the subject – that was his way of defusing tension. “He would make a joke about everything,” says Jenny, who is 43 and works as an operations manager.
Argument aside, it was a great get-together. “John was on really good, funny form,” says Jenny. They went for dinner at a Turkish restaurant and played darts in the garden. John scored a bullseye with his eyes closed and bragged about it all weekend. There was only one other difficult moment, when the family went to a local health club. John refused to wear a mask. The twins had a fight in reception.
“I said: ‘John, put your face mask on,’” Jenny remembers. “‘He said: ‘You aren’t my mother – don’t tell me what to do.’” John eventually acquiesced, then made another easy joke. They went swimming and played tennis and forgot about it.
A perfect weekend, then. Twins enjoying each other’s company after the enforced separation of the pandemic. Neither had any idea it would be their last time together.
John and Jenny were born in Southport in 1978. As children, they were diametrically opposed. Jenny was a bookish goody two-shoes; John was mischievous, good at sport and uninterested in school.
Despite their differences, they shared a formidable bond. “When we were very young, we were shadows of each other,” says Jenny. Into adulthood, she always knew when her brother was lying – like the time he told their mother he hurt his shoulder tripping over a witch on Halloween. (He had been knocked off his bike by a lorry.) “He didn’t want Mum to worry,” she says.
Jenny left home at 18 to go to university, leaving her brother behind. He worked in their parents’ carpet business for a while, but didn’t enjoy it, then joined the erotic dance troupe the Chippendales, performing all over Europe. “He had piercings in places you don’t want to know about your brother having piercings in,” Jenny shudders.
Around this time, he had a child, Macey, who is now 19. The relationship with her mother didn’t work out, but John was a committed and loving father. His stripping days over, he returned to Southport and began working as a product specialist in the flooring industry. He worked to keep the lights on, but sport was his big thing. John had always been a gifted athlete.
“He would do something and get obsessed with it,” Jenny says. In his teens, he was a champion pole-vaulter and hockey player. In adulthood, he went through phases. He got into triathlons for a while, then bodybuilding competitions, then mountain climbing. He was a fixture at his local gym, which is where he met his best friend, Jonathan Cohen, 37, a chartered surveyor. “He’d spot me in the gym with a set of weights and it was a natural progression from there,” says Jonathan. “Suddenly, we were going out every weekend together.”
John’s dedication to fitness was something to behold. “He really pushed his body to the limit,” says Jonathan. John would be in the gym most mornings at 6am. On a holiday to Marbella in May 2016, John kept getting stopped by other men on the beach – they wanted to know his training regimen. Jonathan cropped John out of their holiday photos. “I wasn’t having a photo stood next to him with his six-pack,” he laughs. “No! Not having that.”
John was gregarious and fun-loving. “He was a social butterfly,” Jenny says. “He liked being out, working a room, being charismatic and laughing and joking. He was a big piss-taker – he’d insult you, but in a funny way, so you ended up laughing.” From his first girlfriend, at 10, John was a serial monogamist, prone to the odd grand gesture; he once proposed to a girlfriend at a festive grotto while dressed as Santa. “He was an old romantic,” says Jenny. “He really wanted the happily-ever-after.” (That relationship didn’t work out and John never married.)
From January onwards, John struggled with his mental health. Covid restrictions weighed heavily on him. He hated not being able to go to the gym, hated not being able to go climbing, hated not seeing his friends. He lived alone, having broken up with a girlfriend at Christmas, and was lonely. He confided in his sister. “I was really worried about him,” Jenny says. “He was in a bad place. I had to call him every day to make sure he was OK.” Their grandmother died in March. When Jenny saw him at the funeral, she was horrified. “He’d lost so much weight,” she says.
Jonathan thinks this is, in part, what drove his friend’s Covid scepticism. “He was frustrated at the way he couldn’t go and do normal things,” he says. “He didn’t want another lockdown, or to be in a situation where he wasn’t able to go and see people.” John felt that Covid was real, but that it had been dramatically overstated by the authorities. Nobody he knew in Southport had contracted Covid. If he got the virus, he would be fine. “It got to the point where he refused to wear a mask at all,” says Jenny.
Many of the people in his life tried to argue with him. “I would tell him: ‘Why won’t you get the jab? You’ll need it if you want to go away on holiday,’” says Jonathan. “He kept saying that he wanted to wait. It wasn’t that he would never get it. But it was more the misinformation, really. For whatever reason, he would not listen to whatever message was coming out of the government. I’d say to him: ‘John, why are you listening to that rubbish?’”
John was a fan of the pearlescent-toothed Tony Robbins, whose brand of adrenalised motivational speaking has earned him an estimated fortune of $500m (£375m), plus a private island in Fiji and celebrity fans including Serena Williams and Hugh Jackman. Robbins, while steering clear of outright anti-vaccine statements, has made comments throughout the pandemic that play down the severity of Covid, or imply that lockdown restrictions are overblown. (Confusingly, he has also touted a Covid vaccine that is being developed by Covaxx, a company that has received funding from a venture capital firm in which Robbins is a partner. He has made no secret of that financial interest.)
In September 2020, Robbins posted a link to an article by the Kremlin-funded news site RT that said lockdowns “achieved almost precisely nothing with regard to Covid. No deaths were prevented”. In September 2021, he appeared at a conference in Florida where he mocked Australia’s Covid restrictions, cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines and told a cheering audience not to let “fear be the thing that controls you”.
“John mentioned to me once that one of his beliefs was that we shouldn’t live in a climate of fear around Covid,” says Jenny. “If you were young and fit and well, you’d be fine.”
In this assumption, John wasn’t entirely wrong. He was extremely unlikely to die from Covid, as a physically fit 42-year-old with no underlying conditions. The Covid mortality rate for a 40-year-old with no underlying health conditions is about one in every 1,490 people infected.
But his calculus when it came to understanding the risk-to-benefit ratio of Covid vaccination was off. If infected, someone who is unvaccinated is 32 times more likely to die of Covid than someone who has been vaccinated. While vaccination carries a risk of side-effects, this risk is far smaller than the risk of being unvaccinated during a pandemic. Out of 46.3 million fully vaccinated people in the UK, 77 have died of blood clots thought to be related to a Covid vaccine.
“There is a huge asymmetry with risk,” says Dr Tom Stafford, a psychology lecturer at the University of Sheffield. “If you can get away with things that are low probability, you don’t know how dangerous they are until it’s too late.” Stafford uses the example of driving without a seatbelt: most of the time, you will be absolutely fine. But the one time you are in an accident, things might get very bad very quickly.
“It’s the same with the vaccine,” says Stafford. “It’s a low-probability event that you will get the virus and need hospitalisation. But if you do, then the vaccine shows its benefit.”
Stafford says that decisions about vaccination, particularly for Covid, are some of the hardest that people have to make. “Risk calculus can be particularly hard in certain circumstances,” he says. “Risks where we don’t always see the outcome, so we have to trust people. And new risks. Coronavirus is both of those things.”
But why would someone such as John be inclined to take his information about the pandemic from social media influencers rather than scientific experts?
In 2009, Stafford co-authored a paper that surveyed people who lived on brownfield sites that might have been contaminated with pollutants. The survey asked the residents whom they trusted to tell them about the risks associated with living on the land. While most of the people trusted scientists to tell them the truth, they were almost as likely to take their information from family and friends, despite their total lack of expertise. “It wasn’t that they didn’t trust the expertise of the scientists,” Stafford says. “They knew that scientists knew about pollution. They just thought that the scientists didn’t have their interests at heart, whereas they knew that family and friends did.”
The internet replicates this fundamental human impulse – to trust family and friends almost as much as we trust experts – at scale. “We feel a connection to the people who are telling us things in a way that we don’t feel a connection to the Centers for Disease Control or the Joint Council on Vaccination and Immunisation,” Stafford says.
In the age of social media, we don’t even need to have met the people we trust as much as established experts. “That’s why social media is so dangerous,” says Stafford. “Because people share that emotional connection with influencers they might never have met. But it’s an asymmetrical intimacy. I may think I know that vlogger and they are talking to me. But really they’re talking to millions of people – and the advertisers generating them their revenue.”
The falsehoods that John repeated to his family and friends in the months leading up to his death are common tropes in online anti-vaccine spaces and easy to find: the vaccine has dangerous levels of formaldehyde in it; the vaccine is experimental; people are only getting the vaccine for free McDonald’s.
“The best thing that people can do is realise that social media platforms are fundamentally unsafe environments to gain facts about a pandemic that might kill you,” says Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “Social media contains vast amounts of misinformation that mingles seamlessly with good information. The misinformation might kill you.”
John was a heavy user of social media. “He was what I’d call a Facebook ranter,” says Jenny. Occasionally, she would challenge him on the content of his posts about Covid. When he was at her house, Jenny told him off for spending too much time on his phone. “He wouldn’t put his phone down,” she says.
Ahmed is scathing about the social media companies that profit from misinformation. “They don’t want you to find the truth,” he says. “They want you to keep scrolling. If you find the truth, you don’t need to scroll any more. They want you to keep scrolling and arguing and looking for more bullshit.”
John tested positive for Covid on 29 June. By 3 July, he was seriously unwell. Amy, the woman who had recently become his girlfriend, had to force him to call 111 for help. Later that day, he was taken to Southport & Ormskirk hospital by ambulance.
Jonathan texted his friend as soon as he heard the news. “He said that he couldn’t type, but that he was in hospital with pneumonia,” he remembers. “He wouldn’t admit at that point that it was Covid.”
John had a raging temperature and difficulty breathing. Doctors put him on a Cpap machine, to assist his breathing, and swathed him in cooling blankets. On 4 July, John was up all night vomiting blood. He sent Jonathan a voice note the next morning.
“It is the worst voice note I have ever heard in my life,” says Jonathan. “I burst out crying halfway through it.” The voice note is a minute and a half long. In that time, John speaks about 12 words. “I will never send it to anyone, but if anyone questioned whether Covid is real, I would play it to them,” says Jonathan. “It is the worst thing in the world. I can hear the fear in him. He is literally gasping for air. This is someone I knew who could run 10k or climb a mountain without struggling.”
On 6 July, Jenny was in the supermarket when a feeling of great panic settled upon her. “I just had this feeling that something wasn’t right with John,” she says. She left without doing her shopping. That afternoon, she got the phone call. John was in the ICU. She immediately got a train to Southport, sobbing the whole way.
By 11 July, John needed to go on a ventilator. Jenny spoke to him on the phone before he was sedated. She told him she loved him. He couldn’t respond, but he texted her: “Don’t let them give up on me.” It was the last message she received from her twin.
On the morning of 27 July, John’s family got the call they had been dreading. He was dying; they should come in right away. They raced to the hospital, but John had stabilised by the time they arrived. Staff told them to go home and said they would call back if there was any change.
About an hour later, the hospital called back. The family piled into the car and started driving to the hospital at top speed. Nurses kept calling, telling them to hurry. They raced to the ICU, where staff were waiting with PPE. Jenny could hear the alarms going off in her brother’s room. “I couldn’t stop shaking,” she says. “It felt like a monster was about to come out of my mouth and I couldn’t control it.”
When they had finally tugged on the PPE, they ran into his room. It was full of ICU staff, all in tears. John had just died. Jenny’s stepdad collapsed to the floor. Her mum was wailing. “The matron grabbed my mum and was holding her,” says Jenny. “Everyone was crying. The consultant was crying. All the staff were crying. Because he was so young. And they couldn’t save him.”
How do you explain how a supremely fit 42-year-old man died of a disease typically thought to afflict older people or those with underlying conditions?
“Genetics makes the most sense,” says Dr Guillaume Butler-Laporte, a genetic epidemiologist at McGill University. Butler‑Laporte is part of a global research programme to analyse the genomes of more than 100,000 people with Covid, in an effort to understand why some people are more severely affected than others.
When he began his research in March 2020, Butler-Laporte “did not expect to find much”, he says. “We thought Covid would affect everyone, but be worse for old people and not as bad for young people. But as we included more patients, we saw a clear story develop. It was surprising.”
Butler-Laporte and his colleagues found that people with variants in up to a dozen locations on the human genome were at higher risk of developing severe Covid, should they be unfortunate enough to be infected with the virus. People with variants on the chromosome 3 region alone were up to twice as likely to develop severe Covid as someone without that genetic mutation. Chromosome 3 mutations are carried in about 10% of people of European ancestry, meaning that such people have a 10% chance of being twice as susceptible to severe Covid infection.
“There is no question there is a genetic underpinning to this,” says Butler-Laporte. “As to whether genetics is more important than other factors, like age, I wouldn’t want to comment. But it is clear that there are other determinants of severe disease and genetics is one of them.” He is almost certain that John fits the profile of someone with a genetic variation that made him more vulnerable to severe Covid. “It’s impossible to know specifically what genes he carried, but it’s very likely he carried this genetic predisposition,” says Butler-Laporte.
Unbeknown to John, his body was primed to react with maximum violence to the Covid virus. When he was unfortunate enough to breathe in infected air carrying infinitesimally small virus particles, his body gradually failed.
“Had he been vaccinated, the best case would have been that he developed sterilising immunity, meaning that, when the virus landed in his nostrils, it got picked up by antibodies and never set up an infection,” says Dr Tom Lawton, an intensive care doctor. “If he’d had a lower level of immunity from the vaccine, he would have had non-sterilising immunity, meaning that the virus did start to infect cells, but his body fought it and was able to clear out the virus before it ramped up rapidly.” But John was not vaccinated.
The Covid virus infected his cells, replicating in his body. He eventually managed to expunge the virus – but then his immune system went into overdrive. “The virus seems to set something up in the body and the damage comes from there,” says Lawton. “It wouldn’t have happened had the virus not been there.”
First, his lungs were affected. “There will have been blood clots forming, as well as a thickening of the membrane that separates the air and the blood in his lungs,” says Lawton. As a result, the blood couldn’t carry sufficient oxygen to John’s organs.
Doctors treated him with steroids, to damp down his immune response. But these immune suppressants made John vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infections. He developed infections in his lungs. His liver and kidneys began to malfunction, causing waste products to build up in his blood.
Doctors put John on dialysis to clear out the toxins, but by this point many of his organs were failing and he had unsurvivably low oxygen levels. He expended an inconceivably huge metabolic effort to stay alive. “Although it looks like someone is just lying there asleep, the amount of work they’re doing is really impressive,” says Lawton. He compares it to walking a marathon for every day the patient is hospitalised.
Eventually, John exhausted his physiological reserve. His body was oxygen-deprived and wrung out. His heart stopped beating and he died.
Before he died, John told the doctor treating him how much he regretted not getting the vaccine. “The doctor said that he was beating himself up so much before they put him on the ventilator,” Jenny says. “He was saying: ‘Why didn’t I get vaccinated? Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I listen?’”
It is for this reason that his family has agreed to share his story. “He probably wouldn’t be dead if he’d had the vaccine,” says Jenny. “It’s really quite simple. He made a bad decision. We all make bad decisions all the time. And he paid the ultimate price for it. Which is so unfair.”
Jenny says she “just wants people to be vaccinated and, if they have doubts, to get medical advice – not advice from the internet. And to realise that Covid is brutal. It’s just brutal.”
She is struggling to adapt to life without her brother. “I don’t know that it will ever feel real,” she says. “How can my healthy, outgoing, silly brother be dead? It doesn’t make sense in my brain. How can I be a twin without a twin?”
At John’s funeral, on 16 August, Jonathan delivered a eulogy. He spoke about that holiday in Marbella in 2016. They spent a day drinking champagne at a beach club, laughing, messing around. As the sun set, a rainbow formed over the sea.
This is how Jonathan likes to remember John. They are sunburned, drunk, a little unsteady on their feet. Suffused with love for each other. The night is drawing in and Jonathan turns to his best friend and says: shall we carry on? And John says: of course.