MILWAUKEE — The former Aurora Health Care pharmacist accused of attempting to intentionally spoil nearly 600 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products.
The two counts 46-year-old Steven Brandenburg agreed to plead guilty to carry a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. The charges are in violation of federal 18 U.S. Code § 1365: 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.
Brandenburg also faces an attempted felony criminal damage to property, a class A misdemeanor, in Ozaukee County Court - a charge he pleaded not guilty to. That charge carries a $10,000 fine and nine months behind bars. The Ozaukee County District Attorney has not announced whether they are dropping the charge, but said in a statement Tuesday that “I’m grateful for the hard work and dedication of all the law enforcement officers, and the prosecutors from the federal government, that was necessary to bring an appropriate level of prosecution and punishment to this case."
According to prosecutors, Brandenburg attempted to spoil Moderna-manufactured 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 12 hours, hoping the warmer temperature would make the doses ineffective, prosecutors say.
The plea agreement released Tuesday states Brandenburg believed in conspiracy theories, followed notions of alternative history and was skeptical of vaccines, in particular the Moderna vaccine. The agreement continues that Brandenburg shared these beliefs with co-workers at the pharmacy for at least the last two years.
Before the extent of Brandenburg's actions were discovered, the doses in question were administered to 57 people, according to federal prosecutors.
The Ozaukee County District Attorney, Adam Gerol, had previously said Brandenburg could face a felony charge in connection to the incident. That depended upon then-unfinished tests by vaccine manufacturer Moderna to find out if the doses were spoiled or not.
The conclusion of that investigation remains unclear, but the two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products Brandenburg pleaded guilty to suggest the doses, in the end, were not spoiled, though Brandenburg did intend them to be.
The market value of the doses is in excess of $8,000, according to Ozaukee County prosecutors.
Ozaukee County prosecutors explained in a criminal complaint that Dr. Randall Hyer of Moderna Pharmaceuticals wrote on Jan. 5, 2021 that the vaccine would not have been rendered less effective if they were only left at room temperature for up to 24 hours. Moderna later provided guidance on testing the remaining vials of the vaccine for efficacy.
On Jan. 13, Brandenburg's pharmacy license was suspended, pending the outcome of criminal and disciplinary hearings.