In Depth

On the Trail of Deadly Drugs

‘Dateline’s’ Report Tracked Counterfeit Pill Manufacturers

Sometimes it takes a yearlong investigation, including setting up hidden cameras halfway around the world, to expose a health threat that most people didn’t know existed. That’s what happened when “Dateline NBC” aired “Bitter Pills” last summer, the culmination of an investigation into how counterfeit prescription drugs can end up in Americans’ medicine cabinets and potentially cause great harm or even death.

The piece told the story of a St. Louis woman undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and how a costly drug called Procrit was easing her symptoms and helping her to lead a normal life. Suddenly, the drug—a liquid administered weekly by injection—stopped working and the woman died. It turned out that the $500-a-dose medication the family purchased at a local pharmacy was fake, although the box and the labeling looked legitimate. Apparently there wasn’t enough of the active ingredient in it for it to be effective.

“Dateline” obtained the records and found out that a series of wholesalers in four different states had handled the drug. Somewhere in the supply chain, a drug-counterfeiting ring slipped in the bogus product. It managed to operate for a year, selling 11,000 boxes of fake Procrit at a huge profit before authorities shut it down.

The NBC report said even the top-selling prescription drug in America, Lipitor, had to be recalled when counterfeits from Central America were discovered in drugstores across the country, including Rite Aid. Exploiting loopholes in the drug supply system, criminal enterprises based in Colombia, Mexico, India and China were making a killing, according to investigators.

“Dateline” producer Steve Eckert set up a phony drug distributorship on the Internet, requesting both raw material and finished pills, in an effort to pinpoint the source of some of the bogus medications; he asked that small amounts of drugs such as Viagra be shipped so they could be checked out before larger orders were placed. The counterfeiters took the bait, and one of the major trails led straight to Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Reporter Chris Hansen had originally been tipped off to the story by law enforcement and pharmaceutical industry security sources. He traveled to China undercover as an American drug distributor to negotiate face-to-face with Cherry Wong, a Chinese counterfeiter who sold fake drugs that looked so real they could fool pharmacists. As the hidden cameras rolled, Mr. Hansen shook hands on a deal that was potentially worth $10 million to the sham American company, Hansen Group.

“To me, it was shocking that so many people try to get rich from making, selling or introducing counterfeit drugs into the pipeline, knowing how vital these things are to so many people,” Mr. Hansen said. “It was a pretty aggressive endeavor to make contact with people manufacturing and selling fake drugs, and actually cut a deal in that hotel room. We were able to do it with no detection.”

He said the volume of drug manufacturing in China is overwhelming. Some of it is legitimate, handled by plants built by the pharmaceutical industry. Yet he said counterfeit operations compete by putting in even better manufacturing operations.

“We found a lot of counterfeit companies in China and India will take a drug and reverse-engineer it to get the raw material. It’s not necessarily illegal in some of these countries,” Mr. Hansen said. “On the Internet, you can get discount Viagra, Vicodin and Xanax, but you don’t know what’s in there. You have to be careful you’re buying from a reputable source.”

The “Dateline” investigation also showed some illegal drug labs where drywall is used as a filler and road paint for coloring.

The piece had a regulatory impact on both national and state levels. Within days after “Dateline’s” investigation aired, the FDA announced long-delayed rules to crack down on counterfeiting by issuing guidelines that will help track medicines from manufacturer to drugstore.

The states have a patchwork quilt of laws regarding prescription drugs. In some states, a wholesaler’s license can be had for as little as $20.

“It seems there is now a discussion about regulating across the board,” said Mr. Hansen. “If you can keep it out of the mainstream, and can eliminate a lot of potential for people to get this by keeping fakes out of pharmacies, that’s half the battle.”