The difficult fight against counterfeit drugs

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

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access
And many of these fakes are so sophisticated, even investigators at an FDA lab in Cincinnati couldn't distinguish which bottle of Zyprexa was fake with the naked eye. Using a forensic light source, they can test the ink - the label that lights up is the real one.

A fake Lipitor pill looked so authentic they had to superimpose a diagram of an actual pill to see that the number "20" on the pill did not match up.

"With the naked eye, you could not see this," a lab technician pointed out.

Balbir Bhogal was recently arrested in Madison, Wis. for allegedly trafficking counterfeit drugs.

"As they say in India, you can manufacture anything. There's no limit," he told Gupta.

Bhogal is also accused of providing millions of anti-anxiety pills from India to a Web site operator for a site with a common, seemingly harmless name.

"He was running a Internet pharmacy, which is actually, I discovered recently that its Web site, 'Easy Meds for You,'" Bhogal said. "He had lots and lots of suppliers."

Bhogal told Gupta he never met the site's operator and that it's a totally virtual operation. "Never met him and I didn't even know believe his name was real or not," he said.

Bhogal maintains his innocence and claims he was only supplying anti-anxiety medicines with the proper formulation and thought it was for the Asian market. The government says he knew the pills were illegally coming into the United States.

"Were you worried at all about these medications? Where they were gonna end up?" Gupta asked.

"Never looked at that issue at all," he replied.

Asked if he wish he had, Bhogal said, "Yes."

What is even more alarming is these counterfeit medications are not just being sold on the Internet. They are also making their way into mainstream pharmacies and hospitals. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says that while the vast majority of our drug supply is safe, there's reason for concern.

"You know, we don't really know the full dimensions of the problem. But, we do know that in certain countries somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of really important drugs for health are, in fact, counterfeit," Commissioner Hamburg said.

"How does all this increase in counterfeit drugs around the world affect the United States?" Gupta asked.

"Just consider that 40 percent of drugs taken in this country come from other countries; 80 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in drugs taken in this country actually come from other countries," Hamburg said.

Even if the prescription medications are manufactured in the United States, the raw ingredients often come from overseas, through a complicated web of suppliers and distributors - and are increasingly vulnerable to counterfeiting.

That is what happened in 2008 with the blood thinner heparin, which millions of Americans rely on to prevent blood clots. Little did the manufacturer, Baxter International, know that one of the raw ingredients from China was counterfeit.

"How many people were affected by this?" Gupta asked Hamburg.

"In this country a little over 80 people actually died from contaminated heparin,"

Baxter says the number of deaths is closer to four or five, but everyone agrees it's difficult to know the exact number.