The Japanese government bears ultimate responsibility for the defective blood products which are claimed to have caused as many as 10,000 people to become infected with hepatitis C, the country’s premier has acknowledged. “Pharmaceutical matters are the responsibility of the authority that grants permissions for them,” said Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. “In that sense, I believe the government bears responsibility in various ways, including moral responsibility,” he added.

The government is preparing legislation which will provide assistance to around 1,000 patients suffering from hepatitis C, some 200 of whom first went to court five years ago to seek compensation and damages from the government and the manufacturers of the blood-clotting agents - Nihon Pharmaceutical, Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma and its subsidiary Benesis Corp - for infections which they claim to have contracted. Around 800 more are expected to join them in filing claims that they continued to receive the blood-clotting medicines even through the government and manufacturers were aware that they were potentially contaminated. The products were withdrawn from the US market in 1977 and concerns over them were being expressed in Japan as far back as the early 1980s, but they still continued to be approved by the national medicines regulator.

The cases which have already been heard have brought orders from four courts for the government and companies to compensate the victims, but the two sides have failed to reach agreement on how this should be achieved, mainly because a government apology and acknowledgement of responsibility was not offered.

However, last month, Prime Minister Fukuda publicly apologised to a group of plaintiffs. The aid package, which is supported by the both government and opposition parties and is likely to pass within weeks, is expected to offer the 1,000 plaintiffs compensation within a 12-40 million yen range, depending on the severity of their conditions.