A former Wisconsin pharmacist has agreed to plead guilty to intentionally tampering with hundreds of doses of Moderna Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday. Steven Brandenburg was fired after he 57 vials of the vaccine from a hospital refrigerator, causing more than 50 people to be vaccinated with improperly stored doses.
Brandenburg, 46, is charged with 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 DOJ said. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He has not formally pleaded guilty to the charges, but the agreement signals an intent to do so.
In a statement announcing Brandenburg's plea agreement, the DOJ said he "purposefully removed a box of COVID-19 vaccine" from Aurora Medical Center's refrigerator during two successive overnight shifts in late December, "intending to render the vaccine inert and no longer effective." In the agreement, Brandenburg admitted to believing in "conspiracy theories" and said he was "skeptical of vaccines in general and the Moderna vaccine specifically," the DOJ said.
Brandenburg told investigators he believed the vaccine could harm people and change their DNA, according to a probable cause statement obtained by CBS affiliate WDJT-TV in early January. Experts have said there is no evidence that the vaccine can alter DNA.
Brandenburg returned the vaccines to the refrigerator after leaving them out for "several" hours each night, the DOJ said, and 57 people were vaccinated with the doses before the issue was discovered. Officials have said the doses do not pose any medical risk.
Brandenburg was fired by Aurora Medical Center and has since had his license suspended, according to WDJT-TV.
"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."