A Wisconsin pharmacist accused of pulling dozens of doses of the Moderna vaccine from refrigeration has agreed to plead guilty to intentionally trying to make the coronavirus treatment ineffective.
Steven Brandenburg is facing two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products, “with reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of death or bodily injury,” the Department of Justice said in a press release on Tuesday. The 46-year-old suspect has not formally pleaded guilty to the charges, but has signed a plea agreement “acknowledging” his guilt.
“Tampering with vaccine doses in the midst of a global health crisis calls for a strong response, as reflected by the serious charges the United States has brought today,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.
“The Department of Justice will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to ensure the public receives safe and effective vaccines.”
Brandenburg was working back to back night shifts on December 24 and 25 at the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton when he removed 57 vials — containing 500 doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine — from the refrigerator. The vaccine must be kept cold to remain viable.
After leaving them out for several hours each night, the pharmacist then returned the vials to the cold storage to be used in the hospital’s clinic the following day. The Department of Justice said at least 57 people were inoculated with doses from the sabotaged lot before the issue was discovered.
Investigators are still working to determine if anyone else has received the ineffective doses. They do not believe at this time there are any health risks associated with the botched batch of vaccines.
As part of his plea agreement, Brandenburg admitted to believing in “various conspiracy theories,” adding that he “subscribed to notions of ‘alternative history.’” He was also “skeptical of vaccines in general and the Moderna vaccine specifically.”
At the time of his arrest, Brandenburg reportedly told investigators he suspected the coronavirus treatment could harm people and change their DNA – a claim experts have found no evidence to support.
“Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine is critical to overcoming this pandemic, which continues to end lives and upend our economy,” said Matthew Krueger, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
“As these charges show, the Justice Department will pursue anyone—and especially any medical professional—who tampers with the vaccine.”
Brandenburg is facing 10 years in prison for each charge and has since been fired by by Aurora Medical Center. His license has also been suspended.