TOKYO (AP) _ A Japanese Health Ministry panel approved the import and manufacture of Viagra, and the anti-impotence drug is likely to get formal government approval by January, news reports said Monday.

The Central Pharmaceutical Affairs Council approved the drug at a special meeting Monday, and the decision was expected to be ratified when the council convenes its regular meeting later this month, national broadcaster NHK said.

Health Ministry official Haruo Akagawa declined to confirm the report, saying only that the drug ``cleared a stage'' Monday on the way to approval.

The U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. applied in July to sell Viagra in Japan, and the Kyodo News agency reported the government approval to market the drug has been secured with unprecedented speed.

Officials have reportedly become concerned by the enormous black market for Viagra that has sprung up in Japan. Several people have been arrested for smuggling the drug into the country or selling it illegally.

It has been selling for about $49 a pill on the black market in Japan, compared to roughly $10 per pill charged by pharmacies in the United States.

In July, the Health Ministry issued a warning against taking Viagra without instructions when a man who had been taking medication for high blood pressure died after taking the drug.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has reported that 130 Americans who took Viagra have died, the majority from heart attacks. No direct link between the drug and the deaths has been established, but regulations require all drug advertising to mention potential side effects.