By Chris Hansen
Updated: 10:01 p.m. ET June 4, 2006
This report airs Dateline Sunday, June 4, 7 p.m.
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 complained.
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?
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?
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 baby, Sadie.
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 them.
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.
Hansen: And this was the medicine that was supposed to make those moments tolerable for her.
Within a few months, Maxine Blount was dead. And an entire family felt robbed.
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.