Pharmacist pleads guilty to sabotaging 500 doses of Moderna COVID vaccine, federal charges could bring up to 20 years in prison

PHOTO via Grafton Police Department. Pharmacist Stephen Brandenburg in a police booking mugshot.

From the U.S. Department of Justice announcement, "Hospital Pharmacist to Plead Guilty to Attempting to Spoil Hundreds of COVID Vaccine Doses" —

A Wisconsin pharmacist has agreed to plead guilty to charges filed today in federal court that he attempted to render hundreds of doses of COVID-19 vaccine ineffective.

According to court documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Steven R. Brandenburg, 46, of Grafton, Wisconsin, was 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. Brandenburg has agreed to plead guilty to the charges, which each carry a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. 

As detailed in the court documents, while working as a hospital pharmacist in Grafton, Wisconsin, on two successive overnight shifts in late December, Brandenburg purposefully removed a box of COVID-19 vaccine vials manufactured by Moderna—which must be stored at specific cold temperatures to remain viable—from the hospital's refrigeration unit intending to render the vaccines inert and no longer effective. According to the plea agreement, Brandenburg stated that he was skeptical of vaccines in general and the Moderna vaccine specifically. Brandenburg had communicated his beliefs about vaccines to his co-workers for at least the past two years.

After leaving the vaccines out for several hours each night, Brandenburg returned the vaccines to the refrigerator to be used in the hospital's vaccine clinic the following day. Before the full extent of Brandenburg's conduct was discovered, 57 people received doses of the vaccine from these vials.

"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."

"Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine is critical to overcoming this pandemic, which continues to end lives and upend our economy," said U.S. Attorney Matthew D. Krueger. "As these charges show, the Justice Department will pursue anyone—and especially any medical professional—who tampers with the vaccine."

"The FDA has ensured that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine meets the agency's rigorous standards for quality, safety, and efficacy," said FDA Assistant Commissioner for Criminal Investigations Catherine A. Hermsen. "Those who knowingly tamper with this vaccine place American patients' health at risk. Today's announcement should serve as a reminder that this kind of illicit tampering activity will not be tolerated."

"Pharmacists rank among some of the most trusted professionals," said FBI Milwaukee Special Agent in Charge Robert Hughes. "This individual used his special access to tamper with vials of the much needed COVID-19 vaccine. The FBI takes allegations of consumer product tampering very seriously and will use all available resources to bring those to justice who intentionally put the public's health at risk."

This matter was investigated by the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, the Milwaukee Field Office of the FBI, and the Village of Grafton Police Department. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin C. Knight of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, and Senior Litigation Counsel Ross S. Goldstein and Trial Attorney Rachel Baron of the Department of Justice Civil Division's Consumer Protection Branch. 

The claims made in the information are allegations that, if the case had proceeded to trial, the government would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to convict the defendant. The plea agreement expresses the defendant's intention to plead guilty, but the defendant has not yet formally entered a plea in this matter.

More at ABC News.