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Former Aurora pharmacist accused of spoiling COVID-19 vaccines charged with misdemeanor, could face felony

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Posted at 2:34 PM, Jan 19, 2021

OZAUKEE COUNTY — The former Aurora Health Care pharmacist accused of intentionally spoiling nearly 600 doses of COVID-19 vaccines has been charged with attempted felony criminal damage to property, a class A misdemeanor.

Steven Brandenburg made an appearance in an Ozaukee County Court on Tuesday, in which he pleaded not guilty. If found guilty, he could face up to a $10,000 fine and nine months behind bars, according to a criminal complaint.

Watch his court appearance here:

Brandenburg is accused of spoiling the vaccines at the Grafton Aurora Medical Center in December because he didn't believe they were safe. Brandenburg took the vials out of a freezer and left them out for more than 12 hours in hopes of making them ineffective, officials say.

The Ozaukee County District Attorney, Adam Gerol, says Brandenburg could face a felony charge in connection to the incident. That depends upon yet unfinished tests by vaccine manufacturer Moderna to find out if the doses were spoiled or not.

The criminal complaint

The criminal complaint released Tuesday states that on Dec. 30, 2020 Grafton police were called to speak with an investigator with the Aurora Medical Center regarding an emailed confession from Brandenburg.

In the confession, Brandenburg writes: "I intentionally removed the box of COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna on two separate occasions... I did so with the purpose of allowing the vaccine to be outside the temperature range so that it would not be effective," according to the complaint.

The Aurora investigator told police that during an interview with Brandenburg, the pharmacist first said the incident occurred by accident. During a second interview, Brandenburg changed his story, admitting that he did so intentionally, and followed through with the emailed confession, authorities say.

The complaint states that Aurora Hospitals then issued a statement indicating the vaccine doses had been rendered "less effective or ineffective" and that the remaining vials had been discarded.
The Aurora investigator added to detectives that the remaining vials of had vaccine had been destroyed. This was later amended with a statement from Aurora that they had in fact preserved and segregated the doses in question within Aurora's facility, according to the complaint.

The market value of the doses is in excess of $8,000, officials say.

The criminal complaint continues that a detective interviewed the defendant, Brandenburg, at his home. Brandenburg told authorities that he intentionally destroyed the vials of the vaccine by removing 57 vials from their container in the pharmacy's refrigerator.

Brandenburg told detectives that each vial contained ten doses of the vaccine. He said he had done so because the vaccine "was unsafe for people and altered their DNA," the complaint states. He said he came to that conclusion after researching the vaccine. Research and testing approved by the FDA show the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective.

Brandenburg continued in the interview that during his shift on Dec. 24, he removed the container and placed it on the ground, where it remained for about three hours. He then placed the container with the doses back in the fridge, the complaint states. The next day, he removed the container a second time, leaving it on the ground for another nine hours. A pharmacy technician found the container, put it back in the fridge and informed her supervisor, according to the complaint.

Brandenburg told investigators that this was a "spontaneous act," that he wasn't thinking straight due to ongoing personal matters and lack of sleep, according to the complaint.

Dr. Randall Hyer of Moderna Pharmaceuticals wrote on Jan. 5, 2021 that the vaccine would not have been rendered less effective if it was only left at room temperature for up to 24 hours. Moderna later provided guidance on testing the remaining vials of the vaccine for efficacy. Testing of those vials is currently underway, the complaint states. The results of those tests could lead to a felony charge against Brandenburg.

On Jan. 13, Brandenburg's pharmacy license was suspended, pending the outcome of criminal and disciplinary hearings.

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