2007-07-30 03:01:27 UTC
Dateline's Chris Hansen investigates how fake prescription drugs have
popped up at pharmacies- and how this can be stopped
By Chris Hansen
Updated: 5:50 p.m. PT June 9, 2006
Update: Less than a week after Dateline's broadcast about counterfeit
medicines, the FDA has announced new rules to require prescription
medicines to be tracked every time they change hands from the factory
to the pharmacy. The new rules are scheduled to take effect in
December 2006. Click here for more details. Below is Chris Hansen's
Dateline Hidden Camera Investigation which aired Sunday, June 4, 7
Chances are you didn't think twice about the last prescription you
picked up from the pharmacy, trusting that the medicine in the bottle
matches the information on the label. After all, America's drug supply
is the safest in the world. But a dose of reality: as more and more
drugs are being sold on the Internet, a new problem has emerged:
They look so real even pharmacists are being fooled.
The Blount family of St. Louis, Missouri has already discovered that
counterfeit medicine is a very real and growing threat.
Ed Blount: Maxine was a fighter, she always was a fighter. She never
Ed and Maxine Blount were married for 29 years and raised six kids.
But suddenly, after a visit to the doctor, the family got bad news.
Blount: The biopsy shows she's got breast cancer.Chris Hansen,
Dateline correspondent: Breast cancer?Blount: Yes.
Maxine had surgery. But a year later, when the cancer returned and
spread to other parts of her body, she began a grueling course of
radiation and chemotherapy.
Hansen: No matter how much of a fighter you are, that treatment takes
its toll. Blount: It takes away your strength. And it takes away your
desire to live, more or less.
But doctors said there was a medicine that might help.
Maybe you've heard about it on TV: Procrit. It can't cure cancer, but
it can give people the energy to help fight it.
Hansen: So how did Maxine respond to this Procrit?Blount: She
responded real well because she knew she would have three or four real
up days.Tina Rawn, daughter: She said, you know, how great it made her
feel. She didn't just physically feel better. She mentally felt
better, too.Hansen: So you could see the difference?Rawn: Definitely.
Maxine was getting the highest strength from a vial, injected once a
week. It cost $500 a dose-quite literally, worth its weight in gold.
Blount: It was worth it because it gave her life. It gave her
something to live for.
The doctor would prescribe the Procrit, and the family would go to the
pharmacy and pick up the drug. They would then take it to the cancer
clinic, who would inject her with the medicine. It gave Maxine the
strength to do things with her family, including her daughter's new
Rawn: She loved to see her.Hansen: The Procrit helped your mom have
the energy to play with her granddaughter?Rawn: It did.
But suddenly, mysteriously, the Procrit seemed to stop working. Her
family wondered, was the cancer taking over?
Then a nurse at the cancer clinic made a shocking discovery: Their
latest batch of Procrit was counterfeit. And there wasn't enough of
the active ingredient to have an effect.
Hansen: The labels look legit. The box looks legit. It's got a lot
number and expiration number. Blount: To a common person, you go down
the drugstore and pick that up, it could be full of water. You
wouldn't know the difference. We had no idea that what we were getting
and having administered wasn't the good stuff. How? How could we know?
What surprised us, and what may surprise you about this case, is that
Maxine and her family followed the U.S. government warnings you've
heard. They didn't import the medicine from Canada. They didn't order
it over the Internet. They got the medicine the way most of us do- at
a trusted local pharmacy.
Hansen: Prior to this, had you heard anything about such a thing as
counterfeit prescription medicine?Rawn: Never. I never ever would have
dreamed that someone was counterfeiting it, just taking advantage of
someone who's already terminally ill. I can't even conceive it.
So how did it happen? These records obtained by Dateline show that
before Maxine's medicine arrived at her drug store, drugs from the
same batch were bought and sold by a series of drug wholesalers and
distributors in Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, and New York.
Along the way, someone slipped in the counterfeits.
And Maxine Blount wasn't the only victim. The bogus medicine ended up
in well-known drug stores nationwide, including CVS.
Investigators discovered that a phony prescription drug ring run by a
Jose Grillo of Miami, operated undetected for nearly a year- selling
as many as 11,000 boxes of counterfeit Procrit to wholesalers
nationwide, and pocketing an estimated $28 million.
And what other medicines are counterfeiters targeting?
Even the top-selling prescription drug in America, Lipitor, had to be
recalled when counterfeits from Central America were discovered in
drug stores across the country, including Rite Aid.
Another phony prescription drug ring had operated for more than a year
before someone even noticed the fakes. We rarely think to look for
Aaron Graham, investigated counterfeit drugs for the government and
pharmaceutical industry: If I'm sick to begin with, that's why I have
the prescription. Now I get the counterfeit medicine. Now it's sub-
potent. So I'm not getting better. The first thought the doctor has is
not, "Oh, you must have a counterfeit drug." It's, "The drug's not
strong enough, it's not the right drug, you have a different illness,
so let's treat it differently."
And because bogus prescription drugs can be so difficult to detect, no
one really knows how many Americans there are like Maxine Blount who
suffered because her medicine was fake.
Blount: That Procrit was her only hope of being able to enjoy some
prime time because without it, she had nothing. She got part of her
life stolen away from her. Hansen: When you're dying of cancer, time
is precious.Blount: Special.Hansen: And this was the medicine that was
supposed to make those moments tolerable for her. Blount: Right.
Within a few months, Maxine Blount was dead. And an entire family felt
When you hear a story like that, where the stakes are so high, you
want to know more: Who's making the bogus medicines? How do they
sneak them into the very heart of our medical system? And could we
find some of the illegal counterfeiters?
The search for answers would start at a computer keyboard and take us
halfway across the world.
Maxine Blount of Missouri was bravely battling cancer when her family
discovered that one of her medicines was counterfeit.
Tina Rawn, Maxine Blount's daughter: She didn't do anything wrong. She
got her prescription from her doctor and went and had it filled.
Now her family is speaking out, hoping to warn others.
Rawn: This is all part of it, I know she would want us to do this. And
let people know what happened to her. And that can happen to them.
Dateline wanted to find out more about the counterfeit medicine
business. Where are the bogus drugs coming from? And what are the
loopholes that let them reach the shelves of neighborhood pharmacies?
So we went to a man who has investigated counterfeiting cases all over
Aaron Graham, investigated counterfeit drugs for the government and
the pharmaceutical industry: They seized these teddy bears that
contained 40,000 dose units of counterfeit Viagra.
Aaron Graham shows us cases, right here in America, where counterfeit
medicine has been smuggled in and eventually sold to neighborhood
Graham: He was selling them to wholesalers actually in the United
States. Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: How much of this stuff
got in neighborhood drug stores?Graham: It's my understanding that
more than $500,000 wholesale price of this particular drug went to
pharmacies.Hansen: A half million dollars.Graham: That's right.
That adds up to more than 70,000 doses of medicine.
You might think medicines go straight from the factory to your
pharmacy. But there's actually a complex network of wholesalers who
buy and sell surplus medicines. All it takes is some phony paperwork
and some realistic packaging to let fake medicine slip into the
system, and be shipped to local pharmacies nationwide. And criminals
Graham: We've seen Russian organized crime. We've seen Chinese
triads. We've seen Colombian cocaine traffickers. We've seen the
Mexican mafia. We've even seen the Hell's Angels counterfeiting and
smuggling medicines. Hansen: So you've seen Mexican and Colombian
cartels that are now both doing cocaine and prescription drugs?Graham:
According to federal prosecutors, Julio Cruz, a convicted cocaine
smuggler, was one of the ring-leaders in the group that made that fake
Lipitor and sold it to drug stores and mail-order pharmacies
throughout the United States.
And where are the bogus medicine being made? Graham showed us some
examples: One was in a cave in China, where those pills in the teddy
bears were made. We also saw pictures of a counterfeiting operation in
Columbia, making both prescription and non-prescription bogus medicines
- complete with yellow road paint as one the ingredients.
Graham: They use cement. [They use] the lead-based highway paint they
used to provide the coloring.Hansen: So in this case it's not only
counterfeit, but it's dangerous.Graham: Incredibly dangerous. Boric
acid will cause renal failure in humans.
After seeing conditions like that, we wanted to know more about the
counterfeit medicine business.
So Dateline decided to go undercover, posing as businessmen interested
in buying and selling phony drugs. The first step, setting up our own
company, "Hansen Group," with a simple Web page. We set up a phone
with an answering machine and a mail box where we could get
Then we went online to a series of business-to-business bulletin
We won't tell you all the steps, but experts told us the best way to
start would be to look for ads for Viagra, thought to be one of the
most counterfeited drugs in the world.
Phone message: From Bombay India, regarding the U.S. brand medication.
And before long, by telephone...
Phone message: This is regarding your request for various
pharmaceuticals. Thank you.
And by e-mail, we began to get offers, including one from a Chinese
woman who calls herself "Cherry Wong."
Cherry Wong (on the phone): Every month we sell, we have sent to
Over the phone and in emails she didn't mince words. "This business"
she told us, "is illegal" but "high profit."
She agreed to send us a sample of her pills. Not only Viagra, but two
other popular erectile dysfunction medicines-Cialis and Levitra.
At first, the pills and the packaging looked so good, we wondered if
they might be genuine, like the same medicine sold less expensively
To find out for sure, we took the Viagra to the testing lab at Pfizer,
the company that makes the real Viagra.
John Thomas, Pfizer's counterfeit expert: You have to look for subtle
John Thomas is Pfizer's expert at identifying counterfeits. Usually,
he can spot a fake right away. But with these pills, it's hard to
tell, even when they're side-by-side with the real thing.
Thomas: These are actually quite good.
If these pills are fake, Thomas says they're some the best
counterfeits he's ever seen.
Hansen: Is that close enough to fool the average pharmacist? Thomas:
If you aren't looking at them side-by-side, it's really
difficult.Hansen: That's frightening.Thomas: It is frightening, you're
It will take a sophisticated chemical test to tell for sure.
Thomas: Now you can see very clearly that there are significant
In the end, the chemical fingerprint proves the pills are fake. And
even though they look good, you may be surprised to find out what's
Thomas: We have probably a tablet composed of mainly gypsum or dry-
wall material. Hansen: The same stuff that's in dry wall?Thomas:
Basically. It's very similar.
Although they contain some of the active ingredient of Viagra, the
pills are mostly dry wall. But they look good enough to fool almost
Hansen: How would you rate it as a counterfeit?Thomas: An excellent
And although he's testing our fake Viagra, Thomas knows from
experience that counterfeiters worldwide are also targeting other
He showed us some recent examples of fake medicines that wouldn't
work. The drugs Thomas showed us included Aricept, for Alzheimers and
Norvasc, for blood pressure.
Thomas: Again, no active ingredient in this. Hansen: No active
ingredient?Thomas: No active ingredient whatsoever.Hansen: So it
somebody's taking this for their blood pressure...Thomas: No effect.
Lipitor, for cholesterol.
Thomas: It has no active in it whatsoever.Hansen: And for an elderly
person or someone who needs to keep their cholesterol, it could be
fatal?Thomas: That is dangerous, correct.
So who's making the fake pills we bought, some of the best
counterfeits experts have seen?
To find out, Dateline keeps negotiating with Cherry Wong. To prove we
mean business, we place another order, this time for 1,000 pills. And
just as Cherry promised, they sail through customs undetected.
So we decide to try something rarely attempted: We met an illegal
We've been negotiating over the phone and the Internet for eleven
months. And now we're in China to find out how hard it would be to
ship counterfeit pills into the United States-pills that could end up
in your neighborhood pharmacy.
The Chinese government frowns on investigative reporting, but we went
anyway with our hidden cameras rolling.
It's a country famous for knock-offs. But on this trip, we're not
looking for fake Gucci or Rolex.
She may not look the part but Cherry Wong says she is the chief
salesperson for one of the biggest counterfeit pharmaceutical
operations in China. We meet her and her assistant in the lobby of a
modern Chinese hotel.
Cherry Wong doesn't know I'm a reporter. She thinks I'm a businessman
interested in buying fake medicine.
After some small talk, we move to a private suite, where we can talk
serious business. We have wired the room with five different hidden
Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent (undercover and on hidden
camera): The quality on the test shipment was extraordinary.
To remove any doubt about who made such high-quality counterfeits, we
ask her directly.
Hansen: But you actually make it right? Your company does?Cherry Wong:
Yeah, our company, our factory made it.
Cherry Wong says her company makes better counterfeits than other
Chinese companies-fake medicines good enough to sell to distributors
all over the world.
Hansen: You've got Britain, Italy?Wong: Yeah.Hansen: Australia?Wong:
Australia. Yeah.Hansen: Japan?Wong: Japan.Hansen: France?Wong: Uh-
huh.Hansen: And America.
And take one guess where she sells the most.
Hansen: Out of all of those, America is the biggest purchaser?Wong:
Since the fake pills don't have to have real medicine in them, and
don't have to pass safety tests, they're cheap to make.
Cherry's charging us one dollar a pill instead of $8, the regular
wholesale price for the real medicine. But since her pills look good
enough to pass for the real thing, we can sell them at a huge profit.
Wong: Our company, we're very, very busy.
So just how large is her counterfeiting operation? To find out, we ask
how many pills she could smuggle into the United States undetected.
The numbers are even bigger than we imagined.
Hansen: How much do you think we could ship?Wong: One time?Hansen:
Yeah, at a time.Wong: I think-the biggest quantity is 6,000.Hansen:
6,000 in one shipment?Wong: Yeah.Hansen: And how many shipments per
month do you think you could...Wong: Every week, six times. Every
day, one time.Hansen: So we could do 6,000 a day?Wong: Yeah.
She says she'll do it with packages like these, using popular
In order to avoid detection, the fake pills come in small packets.
They're heavily bubble-wrapped and taped with the bottles and the fake
labels shipped separately.
But now instead of a thousand pills, she's telling us how she can
smuggle 6,000 pills a day. That's a million-and-a-half pills a year.
Hansen: It would not be a problem then to do 6,000 a day, five days a
week, 30,000 pills a week? So that's, you know, 120,000 a month.Wong:
You can do it?Hansen: Well, we're getting very close at our end. If
you could do it we can do it.Wong: OKay.
If we finalize the deal, at retail price in the United States, a
year's shipment of counterfeit pills would be worth $ 10 million.
Hansen: That's a lot of money.Wong: Yeah.
But during our meeting, we discover something else. Cherry's company
isn't stopping at Viagra. She tells us they're working on more fakes,
including the cholesterol drug, Crestor, the prescription cream,
Vaniqa, and the weight loss drug, Xenical.
Hansen: So, in other words, you can make the raw material for all this
- Crestor, Vaniqa, Tomudex, and Xenical - but not finished product yet?
Wong: Yeah.Hansen: In the future you think you can do finished product
though?Wong: In the future I think we can do the finished goods.
But just when we thought we'd heard it all, Cherry Wong tells us
something else we'd never imagined.
Hansen: We would be selling these to stores, to drug stores. If Pfizer
changes the packaging do you know, so you can change as well?Wong: Our
lab in America. They always give us the newest information.
Could that be true? The counterfeiters have a lab in America?
We wanted to find out more. So to keep our conversation going, we
promise to keep working on our multi-million dollar deal.
Hansen: Let's do it.
We shake hands and have a meal to celebrate.
Chinese counterfeiter Cherry Wong thinks I'm a businessman about to
seal a multi-million dollar deal to buy her fake medicines. We've been
negotiating over the Internet, over the phone, and now, face-to-face
Cherry Wong (on hidden camera): we can produce more than this
quantity.Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent (undercover): You could
do even more than that? Wong: Yeah, even more.
But she's telling us things that seem hard to believe. She's boasting
about her company's "lab" in America, and about her customers world
Could it be true? Or is Cherry just exaggerating, trying to make a
sale? To find out, we showed our tape to Aaron Graham, who has worked
undercover investigating phony prescription drugs all over the world.
Aaron Graham, investigated counterfeit drugs for the government and
pharmaceutical industry: She seems very articulate, eloquent, and
she's excited to meet you. Hansen: And excited to do the deal.Graham:
And to do business with you, that's right.Hansen: But her biggest
customer is in the United States.Graham: I believe that's true.
And what about that fake medicine Cherry wants to sell us? Could it
really be resold here in the United States?
Hansen: Do you think we could find a middleman who would ultimately
sell these counterfeit medicines to a neighborhood drugstore?Graham:
Well, I hate to say it, but it wouldn't surprise me.
So we keep negotiating, trying to find out the location of Cherry's
American lab. And who's really in charge of her counterfeiting
At a lunch to celebrate the prospect of our multi-million dollar
business deal, Cherry begins to relax a little and tell us some
secrets about her company.
Cherry Wong: One is the big, biggest boss.
She tells us her boss is a Chinese-born scientist who actually lives
in United States, and worked for American drug companies.
Wong: He has worked in America for more than 10 years. Hansen:
Really? Did he work for one of the drug companies?Wong: Yeah.
Remember, Cherry knows all too well that the fake medicine business is
illegal. She even wrote it in an e-mail. So we doubt she'll tell us
much more about her boss.
But it never hurts to ask.
Hansen: What is his name?Wong: Uh...Hansen: Oh, you don't have to
But by now, Cherry seems to trust us. Not only does she tell us his
name, Dr. Lou, she even spells it for us.
In this follow-up e-mail, she gives us even more detail, saying he
worked at a company called Advanced SynTech, then founded his own
company called Pharmaron.
Hansen (confronting Dr. Lou at a parking lot): Dr. Lou? Dr. Lou?
Pharmaron? Boliang Lou: Yeah.Hansen: How are you? Chris Hansen of
Dateline NBC.Lou: Oh, yeah.
Dateline checked records and discovered that a man, Dr. Boliang Lou, a
scientist living in Louisville, Kentucky, had founded a research lab
called Pharmaron. Before that, he'd worked at Advanced SynTech, where
he got a patent.
He seemed to match Cherry's description until we started asking about
Hansen: But do you have a company in China that is making products
like these? Cialis? Viagra?Lou: No, I don't.Hansen: Other medicines?
Lou: Not at all.Hansen: You do not?Lou: No, no.Hansen: You're positive?
In this country, Dr. Lou is a respected scientist, so it makes you
wonder- could Cherry Wong be making it all up, using his name to make
her business sound bigger than it is?
We were about to discover that we weren't the only ones who wanted to
know about Cherry Wong.
Hansen: How big of a player is Cherry Wong?John Theriault, vice
president, global security, Pfizer: We don't know right now. She has a
source of supply for a number of different products, not just Viagra.
And she has customers in countries around the world.
Theriault is in charge of a team of investigators, trying to track
down counterfeiters all of the world. After we returned from our
undercover meetings in China, we discovered that Theriault's team was
in the middle of its own sting trying take down Cherry Wong's entire
Theriault: We thought she was a fairly important player. But we really
didn't have any idea where she was. And we didn't have any idea of
what organization she might be associated with.
While Pfizer investigates, we keep on digging, going back to the
Internet, searching this time for a medicine that could be the
difference between life and death.
If the deadly bird flu ever becomes a world-wide pandemic as some
experts fear, the medicine that will be the front line defense is
Tamiflu, made by the Swiss company Roche.
We wondered, are counterfeiters taking advantage of bird flu fears by
making fake Tamiflu? And if so, how hard would it be to find the
We found a man who we called, calling himself "Nick Yin" from China.
On his Web site, he claims to have genuine Tamiflu and other
medicines, including Plavix, Xenical, Norvasc, and Lipitor-all, he
says, in bulk quantities.
Nick Yin (on the telephone): I can ship three kilograms each time.
About 5,000 boxes. Dateline: 5,000 boxes?Yin: Yes.Dateline: And
you've done that successfully to the United States?Yin: Yes.
We order a sample of his Tamiflu. And before long, it arrives, hidden
in an express mail envelope.
Inside, was one package with ten capsules.
The box clearly says Tamiflu by Roche, just like the real thing. It is
sealed and stamped with a code number, just like the real thing. In
the blister pack inside, the capsules themselves are off-white and
yellow, with the word, Roche, imprinted on each one. Just like the
To the naked eye, this life-saving medicine looks legitimate. And Nick
Yin says he's selling a lot of it to America.
Yin: Yes, I mainly sell to your country. You don't need to worry.
But when Dateline sends the Tamiflu to Roche, the manufacturer, to be
tested, the company says it is actually counterfeit.
And if not getting the medicine you need sounds bad, consider
something worse. Imagine terrorists getting involved in counterfeit
Aaron Graham, former undercover counterfeit investigator: We've had
testimony of the Hill that Hezbollah is counterfeiting medicines to
fund their terrorist activities.
Aaron Graham says when he heard that 600,000 doses of fake Lipitor had
turned up in American drug stores back in 2003, the first thing that
crossed his mind was, could it be a new kind of terrorist attack?
Graham: God forbid somebody had intentionally, with malice, introduced
an adulterated and dangerous medicine. And that morning everybody got
up and took their Lipitor, and people started falling over. That's
what went through my mind. It still goes through my mind, frankly.
In a Dateline Hidden Camera Investigation, Chinese counterfeiter,
Cherry Wong, sold us some the most authentic-looking fake pills
experts have ever seen. But we're still trying to find out who's in
charge of Cherry Wong's operation.
Pfizer's chief of security, John Theriault, wants to know too.
John Theriault, Pfizer chief of security: We were trying to work the
food chain, both into the United States to find out if she had a
network here, and also back up the food chain in China to find out who
was manufacturing the product.
While Pfizer expands its investigation, we continue our own, trying to
find our more about this man-Dr. Boliang Lou, the Chinese-American
research scientist Cherry Wong claims is her "big boss."
Boliang Lou: Completely not true.
When we first met him, Dr. Lou flatly denied having anything to do
with counterfeiting, and said he didn't even recognize the name of
Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent, talking to Dr. Lou: What about
that? Is that familiar to you? Lou: No.
Cherry Wong told us she worked for a Chinese company called Cixi
Dateline found and translated these business records from China,
showing that Cixi Combipharma was actually formed by another company,
And whose name appears on the board of directors of that company? Dr.
Boliang Lou. Dr. Lou lives on White Blossom Blvd. in Louisville,
Kentucky. Looking closely at the official Chinese company records, you
can see his address written in English.
What's more, for several years, his wife was listed as the company's
So last month, we went back to Dr. Lou to ask him about the records
that seemed to raise more questions than they answered.
Hansen: So these are the documents filed with the Chinese government
for Beijing Combipharma, okay? Lou: Uh-Hmm.Hansen: And these are the
members of the board which include you, and your wife. Right?Lou:
When we showed him the official documents, Dr. Lou told us his family
had started the company, but he and his wife severed their ties to it
in December 2004, before Dateline ever met Cherry Wong or received her
Lou: We just dissolved this company a long time ago. Hansen: But your
family started this company.Lou: With my brother.Hansen: With your
brother.Lou: Yeah. No longer existing.
Later in a phone call, Dr. Lou told us he suspected a few years ago
that the company might be selling raw materials that could be used in
counterfeits, and told his brother to stop it immediately.
Dr. Lou says he's no counterfeiter. He's a victim of Cherry Wong who's
using his name, and the company's name, without his knowledge.
In fact, his lawyer told us Cherry Wong quit her job at Cixi
Combipharma in June 2004, but kept using the company name for her own
Hansen: Well, do you think somebody could be making this up for some
reason to harm you? Lou: Absolutely, absolutely!
Could Cherry Wong be making up the whole story as part of a slick
sales pitch? (More about her later.)
No matter who's behind this counterfeiting operation, the real
question is, how do you stop the fakes from threatening America's
Aaron Graham thinks there's a solution that could be adopted by
legitimate drug distributors.
Aaron Graham: They can use a device to actually read the bottle,
obtain the radio frequency ID number.
It's a system to put a miniature chip with an ID number on every
bottle of medicine and then, track where it goes.
Graham: So if it doesn't scan, it's not ours.Hansen: It's
counterfeit.Graham: That's right.
The company Graham works for, Purdue Pharma, became the first
manufacturer to put the radio chips, called RF-ID, on a medicine-the
company's powerful pain-killer, Oxycontin.
And now, Pfizer is following suit, putting similar ID tags on Viagra,
trying to stop the growing problem of fake medicines turning up in
neighborhood drug stores.
Theriault: The evidence today is that while pharmacies in this country
are not awash by any standard with counterfeit products, there's more
getting in now than there used to be.
Our investigation of counterfeit medicine began after we met the
Blount family of Missouri.
Maxine Blount was in a life-and-death battle with cancer when she
discovered one of medicines she'd gotten at her local drug store was
Ed Blount: It's bad enough at any point to know you've got cancer, and
then find out you're not getting the kind of drugs that you're
supposed to get, it's devastating.
Over the course of the next year, we discovered just how easy it is
for counterfeit medicines to wind up at your local pharmacy, from
popular prescriptions like Viagra to life-saving drugs like Tamiflu.
They're bogus medicines that look just like the real thing, but may
not work when it counts.
Aaron Graham, counterfeit medicine expert: It's all about money.
Criminals are very bright, sophisticated people. They're looking for
a margin. They're looking for an opportunity. They're looking for an
opening. Margaret Glavin, in charge of enforcement at the FDA: We are
not happy with the state of the security of the distribution system at
this point. We think it can be stronger.
She says the government is increasingly concerned about counterfeit
medicine showing up in neighborhood pharmacies. And if you shop for
medicine over the Internet, you're taking an even bigger risk. But
none of this is new to the federal government.
In 1984, there was a scandal about counterfeit birth control pills in
America. Congress held hearings and passed a new law, telling the FDA
to set up a system-so called "paper pedigrees"- to track prescription
medicines from the factory to the pharmacy. Ronald Reagan was the
Since then, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all
named their own appointees to head FDA. But the FDA never finished
enacting the regulations needed to fully enforce the pedigree law
because drug wholesalers predicted a paperwork nightmare.
Glavin: They felt that those were overly burdensome and overly costly
for them. Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: Too expensive?Glavin:
But now with new electronic pedigree technology available, the so-
called RF-ID, will the federal government finally require companies to
track medicines from the factory to the pharmacy, to protect against
counterfeit drugs that have been tainted, poisoned, or just don't
Hansen: They're already doing it with Viagra and Oxycontin.Glavin:
That's right.Hansen: Why not the rest of the drugs?Glavin: Well, I
think that's a very good question. And I think that this show you're
doing is really a service in that it's one, telling the American
public what they need to do, what they need to watch out for. And two,
it raises the profile of this issue.Hansen: Are you planning to make
RF-ID technology mandatory?Glavin: As I said, we're looking at what
our options are to increase the speed with which the technology and
the application of that technology to the pharmaceutical supply.
And what do drug stores think about electronic tracking?
In a letter, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores told us
they're "optimistic" about the new technology, but said it's still
"unproven." So they're calling for "immediate initiatives" to
strengthen licensing requirements for drug wholesalers.
The association representing wholesalers told us they also support
stricter licensing standards and harsher criminal penalties for
Pharmaceutical companies are also changing packaging to make it harder
Meanwhile, the federal government says it has stepped up enforcement.
And, in at least one case, it's paying off.
Remember the small sample of fake Tamiflu we bought from China? To
find out more about Nick Yin's counterfeiting business, Dateline
negotiated for a larger shipment. But, this time, when we went to pick
up the package, federal agents from the FDA and U.S. Customs were
Inspectors had opened our package during a spot check, and they seized
our counterfeit Tamiflu.
It's one of more than 100 counterfeit Tamiflu shipments into the
United States they've seized in the last seven months.
And what about the Chinese counterfeiter we met with, Cherry Wong? And
the American scientist who says she's lying about him?
Dr. Boliang Lou says he's willing to cooperate with any investigation
of Cherry Wong. But a face-to-face meeting he wants won't be happening
any time soon.
Hansen: As we speak here today, she's in custody?John Theriault, vice
president, global security, Pfizer: She is.
Working with the government, investigators from Pfizer built a case
against Cherry Wong, and turned it over to Chinese authorities.
Theriault: They reacted very quickly, very thoroughly. And placed her
under arrest. So she has been arrested and she's in custody right
now.Hansen: What stage is their investigation at right now?Theriault:
They're not sharing information with us as the case develops. And
that's not unusual. But we've told them what our interests are, and
that's identifying the entire network.
But for every counterfeiter arrested, experts say there are others
So even though officials say medicine in America is still the safest
in the world, the FDA is also recommending that you keep a close eye
next time you get a prescription- whether you buy online, through the
mail, or even at a drug store.
Glavin: Consumers also have things they can do. They ought to look at
the product. Has it changed color? Does it have a different taste or a
different smell? Are the pills cracked or chipped? Does the packaging
look as though it's been compromised? Is the label funny? Is it on
crooked? Is it different than the label they've had before? Blount:
To a common person, you go down the drugstore and pick that up, it
could be full of water. You wouldn't know the difference. We had no
idea that what we were getting and having administered, wasn't the
good stuff. How could we know?
For one family who's seen the impact phony medicine can have, the
crackdown on counterfeiters, and the new rules to make medicines
safer, can't happen soon enough.
Blount: There's no way you can put a value on it of what it did. I got
a little granddaughter in there that got cheated.Tina Rawn, Maxine
Blount's daughter: She didn't get to spend a lot of time with her.
We're an average family. But that it happened to us, it can happen to