Japan's health ministry is set to buy enough H1N1 flu vaccine for nearly 50 million people from British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline and Swiss maker Novartis, a Japanese newspaper reported on Friday.

The World Health Organization said in late August that the new H1N1 swine flu had reached epidemic levels in Japan, signaling the early start to what may be a long influenza season this year.

The country can produce enough vaccine for about 18 million people but the government hopes to push that figure close to 70 million with the added imports, the Asahi newspaper said.

The government wants to be ready to provide enough vaccine for 53 million people, nearly half the country's population.

It will spend about 100 billion yen ($1.1 billion) to buy enough vaccine for 35 million people from GlaxoSmithKline and for another 12 million from Novartis, the paper said.

Talks on the purchases were supposed to have ended in July but liability concerns delayed the process, the Asahi said.

The government hopes to begin administering the vaccines by late December, the paper said.

Japan's Chugai Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, a subsidiary of Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG, said on Monday that in addition to its current stocks of the influenza drug Tamiflu, it would obtain supplies for 12 million people in Japan until March 2010.

(Reporting by Colin Parrott; Editing by Hugh Lawson)