Wisconsin pharmacist accused of sabotaging COVID vaccines charged with misdemeanor

The suspect is accused of trying to damage more than 500 doses.

January 19, 2021, 7:10 PM

The Wisconsin pharmacist accused of trying to destroy more than 500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine has been charged with a misdemeanor as the investigation continues, authorities said.

Prosecutors also said at a hearing in Ozaukee County Court on Tuesday that Stephen Brandenburg's alleged efforts, including removing 57 vials of Moderna vaccine from refrigerated storage on or around Dec. 24, may not have succeeded in rendering them unusable.

Brandenburg, 46, confessed to authorities that he had "intentionally removed" the vaccine vials on two separate occasions "with the purpose of allowing the vaccine to be outside the temperature range so that it would not be effective," according to the criminal complaint.

The Moderna vaccine must be refrigerated at temperatures between 36 degrees and 46 degrees Fahrenheit or risk losing potency, according to the company.

PHOTO: Pharmacist Stephen Brandenburg in a police booking photo.
Pharmacist Stephen Brandenburg in a police booking photo.
Grafton Police Department

According to police, Brandenburg was "an admitted conspiracy theorist." The criminal complaint alleges that he tried spoiling the vaccines "because everything he has researched had led him to believe that the vaccine was unsafe for people and altered their DNA."

There's absolutely no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines affect a person's DNA. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use mRNA technology that introduces a small part of the virus's genetic code to teach the body how to fight off the real virus, without changing a person's DNA in any way, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Brandenburg's attorney entered a plea of not guilty plea for his client's misdemeanor charge of attempted felony criminal damage to property. The attorney did not immediately return requests for comment from ABC News.

If convicted, Brandenburg, who was released on bond Jan. 4, could see up to nine months in prison and be fined a maximum of $10,000. His next court date is March 18.

PHOTO: A health worker prepares a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, France, Jan. 19, 2021.
A health worker prepares a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, France, Jan. 19, 2021.
Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The severity of any punishment for Brandenburg could hinge on how many vaccine doses actually were rendered unusable.

Fifty-seven of the compromised doses were administered by the time they were believed to be ineffective, Aurora Health Care Medical Group President Dr. Jeff Bahr said at a news conference last month. The recipients of those doses were notified.

After initial reports that remaining vials of potentially ruined vaccine had been destroyed, prosecutors clarified that those vials had been sequestered for additional testing.

Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol had to postpone charging Brandenburg after lab experts said they needed more time. Gerol said on Tuesday that Moderna is still conducting tests but "the best evidence at this point is that the vaccine remains viable."

"If something does come up, there is a possibility the charges may change," Gerol said during the hearing. "I would hope to know something in the next several weeks."

Each of the 57 vials, which contain 10 doses of the vaccine, is valued at $11,000, police estimated.

The Wisconsin Pharmacy Board last week voted to suspend Brandenburg's license pending the outcome of his criminal case and the board's disciplinary process. He became a licensed pharmacist in 1997.

Brandenburg turned over four firearms to law enforcement officials and was ordered not to work in any capacity as a pharmacist as part of his release agreement. He also was ordered not to leave the state without court approval.

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