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Europe lines up more shots, hoping to beat back virus surge

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FILE - In this March 27, 2021 file photo a laboratory worker simulates the workflow in a cleanroom of the BioNTech Corona vaccine production in Marburg, Germany, during a media day. Countries in the European Union have ramped up the vaccination after sluggish start. The uptick comes as countries across Europe also grapple with a rise in infections that has pushed the EUs overall number of confirmed cases close to 30 million. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, file)

BERLIN – Slow out of the gate, the European Union has ramped up its COVID-19 vaccination efforts, with the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot product this week adding to the momentum amid doggedly high infection rates on the continent.

The EU's vaccine drive still lags far behind that of Britain or the United States. Only about 1 in 5 of the bloc’s 450 million inhabitants have received their first shot — approximately half the U.S. share. But European officials say they have turned the corner.

“In the first quarter of 2021 only 10% of Germans were able to receive a first vaccination due to the shortage of vaccine,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said this week. “We achieved the next 10% in just three weeks.”

France celebrated several vaccine milestones recently, including dispensing at least one dose to practically 100% of the country's 700,000 nursing home residents.

And Italy, the Netherlands and other countries are pressing ahead with plans to begin dispensing the J&J shot, or are already doing so, after the EU's drug regulatory agency Tuesday gave the green light for its use amid concerns over a rare type of blood clot seen in an extremely small number of recipients in the U.S.

“The numbers now are encouraging,” said Manfred Weber, a German member of the European Parliament, adding that the EU should be able to offer every citizen a vaccine by the end of the summer.

“If that works out, then I believe many Europeans will say, ‘OK, it was a bumpy ride and things didn’t work out at the start. But in the end we Europeans will be the first continent to be fully vaccinated,'” he said.

The uptick comes as countries across Europe grapple with a rise in infections that has pushed the EU’s overall number of coronavirus cases close to 30 million, while deaths recently passed 660,000, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.