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Pandemic and emergence of variants

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By Prof Kirthi Tennakone

The behaviour of the coronavirus bears resemblance to a high-speed magnified video of Darwinian evolution. The virus changes in front of our eyes and variants emerge as the fittest that survive. Genome surveillance has succeeded in reading the genetic changes accurately and sees how the genotype expresses as phenotype. Genotype being the chemical-genetic constitution and phenotype, characters as manifested in the environmental background.

Humans have sinisterly arrested the natural evolution of animals and plants; but despite scientific advancements, find it difficult to deal with a fast-evolving virus, science alone cannot resolve a social calamity. Containment of the pandemic would be difficult if our actions lag in relation to the pace of virus evolution.

Mutations: cause of biological evolution

According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, life on earth continues by descent, inheriting parental characters subject to infrequent variations or mutations. After the discovery of DNA, the mechanism of inheritance and mutations was understood.

The genetic material DNA, present in all living cells, is a double-stranded structure composed of bead-like moieties pairs, known as nucleotide bases, denoted by symbols A, T, G and C. The sequence of these entities in a strand encodes genetic information analogous to a four-letter alphabet. Some viruses contain one strand referred to as RNA and encode information in the same way. When the cell or the virus replicate, most of the time, the sequence of nucleotides is copied exactly giving birth to a genetically identical cell or a virus. Rarely, copying errors creep in during replication. For example, the sequence AAGCT may be miscopied as AAGCG. This is a minor change in comparison to the entire genome, nevertheless a genetic change or a mutation. Most mutations will not lead to overriding alterations in the character of an organism. Mutations are often deleterious. Very infrequently, a change in character, owing to a mutation, turns out to be beneficial for the species to survive and procreate.

Mutants fitting the environment survive and proliferate. Paleontological findings provide ample evidence of the evolutionary process, when noticeable changes in living species manifest during, more or less, millennia. In most cellular organisms a mutation, fit to get established, takes place once in a million generations. For that reason, we do not see sporadic changes in the progenies of animals and plants. In the past there had not been significant alterations in genetically transferred characters of wild animals. The leopards we see today are not different from ones that lived during the Anuradhapura period, their hunting capabilities are similar.

The situation is different if a virus invades a population devoid of immunity. Their intrinsically fast mutation and replication rates and sheer numbers, invariably bring forth more adaptable strains in very short periods. Certainly, the same phenomenon occurred during previous epidemics and pandemics. Today it is happening at an escalated level because of high human population density, mobility and unrestrained interference in the environment.

Viruses live on cellular life, constantly interacting and following their evolution, while they themselves evolve.

Unicellular and multicellular and viruses

The first living cells or unicellular microbes seemed to have originated 3.5 billion years ago. A giant step in the advancement of life on earth has been the appearance of multicellular organisms, living systems made of assemblies of cells. A mutation in a unicellular agent around 1.5 billion years ago is believed to have cleared the way for the development of multicellular life. These individual cells, sharing similar DNA, formed colonies. Later colonies subdivided, each expressing genetic instructions differently to create complex animals, with organs performing varying functions. The above developmental pathways, leading to advanced forms of life existing today, took more than one billion years.

Viruses are distinct from cellular forms of life. The latter possesses the capacity to grow and reproduce, deriving energy and essence of structural materials from non-living substances; whereas the former needs to enter a living cell to reproduce. All cellular creatures and viruses replicate, mutate and interact with each other and the external environment and evolve.

The pandemic is just one episode of this universal phenomenon, progressing fast and tracked by humans, the concern now is the threat posed by variants.

Variants of Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)

A variant means a mutated version of an organism, distinct from the original in a noticeable deviation of an observable trait. For example, king coconut is a variant of coconut, the distinguishing attribute being the colour of the nut. Apart from the shade of the nut, this particular mutation had turned the tree into a dwarf, very disadvantageous for harvesting sunlight. Unable to compete with other trees, the king coconut would not survive in the wild. Attracted by the colour, humans (in Sri Lanka) have taken care of the variety and propagated it.

In the case of the Coronavirus, the important qualities distinguishing variants are higher infectivity, degree of virulence and resistance to vaccines.

The Coronavirus and other RNA viruses mutate faster than DNA based organisms. Here the probability of a viable mutation per generation (replication) exceeds 10,000 times that of a cellular life form. Furthermore, the generation time of the Coronavirus is a few hours compared to years and months in the case of animals and the total population of viruses in bodies of infected persons, during the time of the pandemics, is many billions times larger than an animal population. Consequently, Coronavirus variants popped up in durations as short as a few months, after the aggravation of the pandemic in late 2020. The longer the pandemic lasts and the greater the intensity, the more variants we encounter.

Since the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and its global spread, many variants have appeared in geographically distinct regions and crossed borders. The original version of the virus which triggered the epidemic in Wuhan underwent the mutation D614G altering the spike proteins, making it more contagious. Soon the strain D614G surfaced almost everywhere initiating the pandemic. It is the common ancestor of almost all variants seen today. The World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control, United States, have classified Coronavirus variants into three categories.

Variants of Concern

: They have increased transmissibility, detrimental alteration in epidemiology, enhanced virulence, decrease effectiveness in public health measures or available vaccines and diagnostics. The Alpha variant detected in the United Kingdom, September 2020; Beta in South Africa, May 2020; Gamma in Brazil November 2020; Delta in India October 2020 falls into this category.

Variants of Interest

: These are strains of the Coronavirus genetically distinguished by sequencing with potentialities of higher transmissibility, disease severity, and immunity resistance. They could pose threats in the future and need to be watched. Variants; Eta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda and Mu recently detected in Colombia are classified as variants of interest.

Variants of high consequence

: These are variants that would largely escape known control measures. Fortunately, at the moment, no candidates come under this category.

How Coronavirus variants originate

A variant begins as a mutation of one single virus in an infected person somewhere. It is very unlikely it would enter someone else and cause the disease. The variant requires to breed sufficiently in the individual in whom it was created. Again, in order to procreate and proliferate, it will have to compete with the parent strain, initially dominant in the patient. The variant will succeed in competing if it replicates faster and more effectively invades cells. As expected, all variants of concern possess the above qualities. Similarly, if the mutant had acquired the trait of evading host immunity, it could overshoot the parent strain.

Variants possibly originate and breed in immunosuppressed persons chronically infected with COVID-19. They carry large viral loads for prolonged durations, a pathology conducive to the birth and growth of variants. A wide range of mutants have been detected in such patients.

Characteristics of variants

Variants of concern spread faster in contrast to the parent strain. A pertinent question is, what changes in the virus provide this facility? For the virus to invade the human system, it must attach to a cell in the respiratory tract and transfer genetic material to the interior of the cell. The virus does this with a special protein in the spikes, binding selectively to a receptor in human cells named ACE2. In variants, the chemistry and architecture of the spikes are redesigned to enhance attachment. Thereafter, the migration of the replicating viruses to adjacent cells is also facilitated by the same process. The host antibodies drive the immune response by attacking spikes to suppress their bondage to the receptors. Mutagenic alterations in the spikes also help the variants to escape host immunity.

Most contagious Delta variant

The delta variant first identified in India, October 2020, resulted in an aggressive epidemic there and rapidly diffused. Several mutations in the spike proteins facilitated its fast spread. While retaining the common ancestral mutation D614G, the Delta carries three other mutations named P681R, L452R and D950N. The mutation D614G increases the number of spikes on the viral envelope. Production of higher viral loads in Delta-infected patients is believed to be a character manifested by the P681R mutation. Their respiratory tracts carry 1000 times more virus particles. The L452R mutation seems to protect spikes from antibodies helping immunity evasion. An ability of the Delta variant to attack a wider group of cells probably originates from a trait induced by D950N mutation. Mainly because of the changes in the spike proteins, the Delta variant reproduces faster by cell-to-cell invasion. Consequently, once this brand of Coronavirus enters a susceptible person, the symptoms appear in a shorter period of four to five days, compared to about a week for the alpha variant.

The Delta variant is 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha which stands 50 percent higher than the ancestral strain. A parameter defining the transmissibility of an infectious disease is the average number of cases reproduced by one carrier of the pathogen, the basic reproduction number (R0). An infection reaches epidemic proportions if R0 exceeds unity. When the pandemic originated in China, the value of R0 was about 2.5. The estimated value of R0 for the delta variant is somewhere between six and nine, an enormous increase in transmissibility relative to the previous strains.

Virus variants compete, whenever the Delta entered new territory, it out-competed other strains.

Vaccinations and Delta Variant

Except for a partial immunity evasion of the Delta variant, vaccines are effective against both variants. Vaccines lower the probability of catching the infection, more importantly greatly reduce serious complications and death. Some statistical assessments conclude that breakthrough infections (re-infections) are higher for the Delta variant compared to Alpha.

The discrepancies reported could also be indications of the fact that the Delta variant is far more contagious than previous strains. Here, the statistically meaningful epidemiological parameters are the number of different categories of infected persons (vaccinated, the severity of infection as determined by hospitalizations and mortality) as a percentage of the total number of infected individuals, recorded temporally. It is extremely difficult to keep track of these quantities when the disease spreads fast. Even the total number of people infected cannot be ascertained reliably. Under such circumstances, the anomalies reported as lesser effectiveness of vaccines in the case of the Delta variant, could also entail errors in data interpretation, arising from the fact that the Delta variant spreads fast.

There are also reports to the effect that more unvaccinated younger adults and children are hospitalized after the arrival of the Delta variant, reflecting the severity of symptoms. Theories have been put forward to explain the apparent anomaly. However, because of faster transmission of the Delta variant, proportionately younger patients may seek hospitalization.

As the dominant strain infecting a large proportion of people; the Delta variant will continue to mutate and evolve. Few mutational changes have already been noticed and named Delta pluses, but there is no evidence to conclude they are more dangerous.

Doomsday variant

News spreads like viruses. Just as mutations, inadvertent or deliberate distortions and exaggerations happen in reproducing news. Versions with more sensational twists disseminate faster.

In May 2021 a new variant carrying mutations suggestive of fast transmission and immunity resistance was identified in South Africa. Months later a reputed epidemiologist tweeted that the variant could be an imminent danger, prompting media to name it a doomsday variant. The ensuing panic was the result of premature unconfirmed assertion. The World Health Organization announced that this variant is not propagating as fast as the Delta.

Stories of pathogens spreading exceedingly fast, evading immunity, are common in science fiction. There is no evidence for such, even at times when preventive measures were completely unknown. Attributes encoded in different mutations do not add arithmetically. If one virus has a trait that allows it to spread fast and another to evade immunity, these two qualities will not necessarily be pronounced, to the same extent, in a third virus endowed with both mutations. Fear-mongering concerning doomsday viruses is most unlikely to persist.

Herd immunity and Delta variant

When the percentage of subjects acquiring immunity (either by vaccination or contracting the illness) exceeds a threshold, epidemics wane and disappear. The point at which this transpires depends on the value of the basic reproduction number R0; determined on the assumption there were no immune individuals, at the time the pathogen initiated the epidemic. As the immunity of the community increases, the reproduction number decreases proportionate to the fraction of people remaining susceptible and the rate of transmission is determined by an effective reproduction number RE. If N is the total population and M the number among them immune, the fraction susceptible is 1- M/N. Therefore the reproduction number reduces to the effective value RE = R0 (1 – M/N). Once RE reaches a value less than unity, the epidemic ceases to continue and the threshold corresponding to RE = 1, occurs when M/N = 1 -1/R0. At the beginning of the pandemic, the value of R0 was approximately 2.5 and the above formula yields M/N = 0.6, so that herd immunity threshold is 60 percent. For the highly transmissible Delta variant, a mean value of R0 is 7.5 and the same formula gives a herd immunity threshold of 87 percent. As vaccinated persons sometimes get re-infected, the actual threshold may exceed the above number, suggesting herd immunity is virtually beyond reach. Fortunately, R0 can be reduced by preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and hand sanitization, thereby lowering the threshold.

Are we sufficiently disciplined to follow preventive measures stringently? The virus will continue to evolve via random mutations and their selection may be influenced by our behaviour. Will it turn more deadly or less deadly? These questions are too complex and unpredictable.

Fortunately, vaccines answer satisfactorily and redesigning and improvements are within reach. Preventive measures dampen transmission significantly. Every individual needs to follow these two strategies confidently, without resorting to unproven practices and myth.



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Features

Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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