A group of about 20 people who contracted the hepatitis C virus via tainted blood products is considering filing a lawsuit against the state and now-defunct drugmaker Green Cross Corp., sources close to the group said Sunday.

An estimated 2 million people have been infected with HCV across Japan, medical experts say, adding they were mainly infected through tainted blood products.

A team of about 100 lawyers will oversee negotiating relief and compensation issues, including free treatment for infection, following the release of an internal investigation report by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the sources said.

However, analysts said negotiations are expected to be difficult, and lawsuits appear inevitable.

Green Cross was absorbed into Mitsubishi Pharma Corp. after several mergers.

Three-fourths of the roughly 20 people contracted the virus when given fibrinogen products as hemostatic agents in childbirth and on other occasions from 1980 to 1988, according to the sources. The members of the group have not identified themselves or said were they reside.

One-fourth were infected through another blood product, Factor 9, also used as a hemostatic in treatments such as those for hemorrhages in newborns, from 1980 to 1986, the sources said.

The lawyers argue that the state should be held responsible for failing to ban the products when HCV was identified in the late 1970s as carrying the risk of evolving into illnesses such as liver cancer. The lawyers stress that alternative treatments were available.

In its investigative report, the ministry effectively denied fault on the part of the state. It laid the blame on Green Cross for its failure to deal with cases of hepatitis C infections in the 1980s from tainted blood products, including products that were not heat-treated.

The ministry admitted to inadequate information gathering, as it failed to learn about a 1977 U.S. ban on blood products that were not heat-treated. As a result, it failed to ban such products until after mass hepatitis infections came to light in Aomori Prefecture in April 1987.

The health ministry argued that the cases of hepatitis infections through tainted blood products in the late 1970s were “extremely limited in number.”

Green Cross is being criticized for belatedly recalling the tainted products — blood-clotting fibrinogen drugs — and reporting on them to the ministry in 1987 after eight cases of hepatitis infection from the agents surfaced from 1986 to 1987.

The ministry launched the investigation in late March after the 1977 U.S. ban drew media attention.

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