(Adds more from von der Leyen, changes media identifier to HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/VARIANT-EU)
By Sabine Siebold
RIGA, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The European Union needs to buy time to assess fully the implications of the new Omicron coronavirus variant and to prepare, notably by pushing for greater vaccination rates, the president of the European Commission said on Sunday.
First discovered in South Africa, the variant has now been detected in EU countries Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, along with Australia, Botswana, Britain, Hong Kong and Israel.
Ursula Von der Leyen, speaking during a visit to Latvia, said she took the variant seriously.
"We know that we are in a race against time.... And the scientists and manufacturers need two to three weeks to have a full picture about the quality of the mutations of this Omicron variant," she told a news conference.
She said time should be spent focusing on precautionary action, notably increasing the rate of vaccinations and of booster shots, reflecting the Commission's proposal last week that EU residents should receive extra doses.
Von der Leyen recalled that the Commission, which seeks to coordinate the European Union's response to the pandemic, had in May concluded a third contract with BionTech/Pfizer for up to 1.8 billion vaccine doses.
The contract, she said, included a clause that the companies would adapt their vaccine within 100 days if a variant turned into an "escape variant" that proved resistant to existing vaccines.
"The general line is hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. The highest priority right now is social distancing, reduce the contact, but vaccinate and boost as much as possible."
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold Writing by Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Frances Kerry)