The difficult fight against counterfeit drugs

Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigates fake medications on his first assignment for "60 Minutes"

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There is a new front in the war on drugs, and it's not the kind of drugs you might think. We're not talking about cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines. This is about drugs that could wind up in your medicine cabinet: counterfeit prescription drugs, made with cheaper - sometimes even dangerous - ingredients such as highway paint, floor wax, and boric acid.

Criminal counterfeiters will go to any length to evade detection. We found a shadowy network of criminals with made-up names, constantly changing locations and lots and lots of money: an estimated $75 billion a year.

"60 Minutes" and CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta got the chance to observe a surprise early morning raid in Lima, Peru. Some 200 police in riot gear stormed an indoor market. Their target: counterfeit prescription drugs. And they found them everywhere.

There were crude packaging machines and silk screens with imprints of actual name-brand drugs. Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit medicines collected from that raid were traced back to a house. Through a back door and down a narrow hallway we found a tiny, squalid patio that was actually a fake drug factory, turning out an astonishing number of counterfeit medications.

Segment: Counterfeit drugs
Extra: The global networks
Extra: Counterfeit drug shell game
Extra: Counterfeit drug labels
FDA: Buying Medicine Online

Peruvian police were led here by someone you wouldn't expect: John Clark, from the American drug company Pfizer.

"I'm looking at this pan with these pills in it. This stuff is going to get into people's medicine cabinets around the world?" Dr. Gupta asked.

"Unfortunately, yes," Clark said.

Clark heads up a global security team assembled by Pfizer. The team includes former FBI, Homeland Security and narcotics agents who work with local police to track down criminals around the world. Counterfeit operations like these are costing drug companies millions of dollars a year.

"This has 'Pfizer' written all over it," Gupta remarked, looking at some of the counterfeit drugs.

"And it's even got the newer Pfizer emblem with the little slant on it and stuff. I mean from the packaging, you'd never know," Clark said.

In the raid, they discovered about two dozen medicines including antibiotics, seizure, blood pressure and pain medications.

"We're in the middle of this very primitive courtyard. This doesn't look like any kind of facility that you'd expect at all. Does this surprise you?" Gupta asked.

"No. No, unfortunately. The quantity of counterfeits you're seeing is phenomenal. The conditions are just abysmal. And if the consumer ever realized that products that they're putting inside their bodies come from this, from dirty water, drying out in the open under a heat lamp, insects and everything else getting into it, contaminants being, you know, brought into the equation and stuff, I think they'd be horrified," Clark said.

According to Clark, counterfeit Pfizer drugs - many from disgusting conditions like the primitive courtyard in Lima - have made their way to pharmacies and hospitals in at least 46 different countries, including England, Canada, and the United States.

"So right now, there are people around the world taking medications to save their own lives who are simply taking the wrong thing, and they don't even know it?" Gupta asked.

"Yes, absolutely," Clark said. "If you have any concerns, you should go to your doctor, should go to your pharmacist. If the pill dissolves differently, if it tastes bitter or differently."

"John, you know, I'm a doctor. I looked at these medicines today. I wouldn't be able to tell if they were fake or not. And that I'm the person they're gonna ask," Gupta remarked. "I don't know the answer. How are other people gonna know the answer?"

"Next step is every pharmaceutical company will take it back, do the test and then find out if it's counterfeit, how it got there and then try to get it off the market immediately," Clark explained.

Produced by Kyra Darnton, Sam Hornblower and Michael Radutzky