The difficult fight against counterfeit drugs

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

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The pills from Peru were sent to Pfizer's testing facility in Groton, Conn. Sometimes counterfeits may have a percentage of the correct active ingredients, but not when it came to a seized antibiotic or an ulcer medicine.

Instead the ulcer medicine contained sugar and chalk. Imagine taking a medication to treat a serious illness with those ingredients.

"People can die. People can be seriously injured, but people can also die," Kumar Kibble, deputy director at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told Gupta.

Kibble is charged with protecting our borders from illicit trafficking. Over the past few years, his attention has increasingly focused on counterfeit drugs.

"In the scheme of things, how big a threat are fake drugs?" Gupta asked.

"Fake drugs are a big threat. And it is an exploding threat you actually have traditional criminal groups that may have engaged in traditional drug trafficking. And they realize, you know, 'I can make just as much money, making, you know, tens of dollars on a pill that I manufacture for pennies,' and have very little exposure in terms of in terms of prosecution," Kibble explained.

"So, you're talking about a very low risk, very high reward, potentially tons of money," Gupta remarked.

"Yeah. Absolutely," Kibble said. "When you think about that some of these pills can be manufactured you know, for 40 cents and sold for $18 or $20, I mean, just think of that profit potential. I mean, it's insane."

Kibble tracks counterfeits from their source in clandestine labs to the United States, where they're typically sold through rogue Internet sites, often posing as legitimate pharmacies.

Thirty six million Americans are estimated to have bought their medicines from these sites, many searching for quality drugs at a better price. Some sites pretend to be from Canada because Canada is known for safe, inexpensive medicines.

Kibble caught one Israeli counterfeiter on a hidden camera admitting that very scheme.

"These are all your Internet Web sites. Is that really from Canada?" an undercover agent asked.

"Noooo!" the counterfeiter replied, laughing.

That same counterfeiter also told undercover investigators of another, decidedly low-tech, way of smuggling hundreds of thousands of pills into the United States: he simply had them dropped in the mail.

At the postal service facility at New York's JFK Airport, the sheer volume of packages of counterfeit and suspicious drugs coming into the country is staggering.

"Our resources certainly haven't kept pace with the volume of products coming into the country or the increase in volume," David Elder of the Food and Drug Administration told Gupta.

Elder told us that when they do find a fake drug, they're often forced to ship it back to the sender. On the day "60 Minutes" was there, they found pills and vials from India posing as legitimate thyroid, fertility and hypertension medication. They had to send it all back.

"That sounds crazy. Why not go after this person?" Gupta asked.

"We don't have the authority to actually destroy this on site. This product could very well come back into the country through a different mail facility. Maybe it gets through. Maybe it gets stopped," Elder said.

"But they're banking on one of these times you're gonna miss," Gupta pointed out.

"Yeah, I think they are," Elder acknowledged.