Pfizer Inc., whose largest pharmaceutical plant is located in Portage, was featured in a story Sunday night on eliminating counterfeit drugs on CBS TVs “60 Minutes.”
Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s report — his first assignment for 60 Minutes — culminates a nine-month investigation into the difficulties of keeping sometimes-deadly fake drugs out of the distribution chain and catching those responsible for this illicit trade.
The reprot begins by reporting on a special global security team assembled by American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer. The team contains former federal law enforcement agents and tracks counterfeiters and their products around the world with the help of local police.
Pfizer’s team identifies a fake drug factory in Lima, Peru, and Gupta and 60 Minutes cameras accompany a raid by Peruvian Police. The factory was producing hundreds of thousands of counterfeits with convincing labels and imprints. Some are so exact, technicians at the pharmaceutical companies whose brands they are counterfeiting cannot tell them apart without using sophisticated tests.
The fakes usually find their way into people’s medicine cabinets via illegitimate Internet pharmacies, from which an estimated 36 million Americans have purchased medicines.
From Peru, 60 Minutes then traveled to the computer command center of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which tracks the intricate web of counterfeit drug producers and distributors around the world. The investigation then follows packages of suspicious medicines through U.S. Customs and FDA inspection at JFK international airport and visits the FDA laboratory where they are tested.
The fakes sometimes have small amounts of the right active ingredient, but often contain substances like sugar or chalk — dangerous enough because it is useless against the illness. But counterfeits have also made their way into the legitimate drug supply and have been found in bulk raw ingredients sold to companies making legitimate drugs with them. The FDA has linked American deaths to a blood thinner found in 2008 to contain a raw ingredient from China that was counterfeit.
Three years after those deaths, Gupta asked FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg how the crime was perpetrated and by whom.
“We do not know the answer to that question,” she said.
Assuring him that the vast majority of the drug supply is safe, Hamburg allows there is still reason for concern.
“We do know that in certain countries, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of really important drugs … are in fact, counterfeit,” she said. “Just consider that 40 percent of drugs taken in this country come from other countries. Eighty percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in drugs taken in this country actually come from other countries.”