PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. – A Wisconsin pharmacist convinced the world was “crashing down” told police he tried to ruin hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine because he believed the shots would mutate people’s DNA, according to court documents released Monday.
Police in Grafton, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Milwaukee, arrested Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist Steven Brandenburg last week following an investigation into the 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, which officials say contained enough doses to inoculate more than 500 people. Charges are pending.
“He’d formed this belief they were unsafe,” Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said during a virtual hearing. He added that Brandenburg was upset because he and his wife are divorcing, and an Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice.
A detective wrote in a probable cause statement that Brandenburg, 46, is an admitted conspiracy theorist and that he told investigators he intentionally tried to ruin the vaccine because it could hurt people by changing their DNA.
Misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines has surged online with false claims circulating on everything from the vaccines’ ingredients to its possible side effects.
One of the earliest false claims suggested that the vaccines could alter DNA. The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine as well as the Moderna vaccine rely on messenger RNA or mRNA, which is a fairly new technology used in vaccines that experts have been working on for years. MRNA vaccines help train the immune system to identify the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus and create an immune response. Experts have said there is no truth to the claims that the vaccines can genetically modify humans.
Advocate Aurora Health Care Chief Medical Group Officer Jeff Bahr has said Brandenburg admitted that he deliberately removed the vials from refrigeration at the Grafton medical center overnight on Dec. 24 into Dec. 25, returned them, then left them out again on the night of Dec. 25 into Saturday.
A pharmacy technician discovered the vials outside the refrigerator on Dec. 26. Bahr said Brandenburg initially said he had removed the vials to access other items in the refrigerator and had inadvertently failed to put them back. The Moderna vaccine is viable for 12 hours outside refrigeration, so workers used the vaccine to inoculate 57 people before discarding the rest. Police said the discarded doses were worth between $8,000 and $11,000.
Bahr said the doses people received Dec. 26 are all but useless. But Gerol said during the hearing that the vials were actually retained and Moderna would need to test the doses to make sure they’re ineffective before he can file charges.
Brandenburg’s attorney, Jason Baltz, did not speak on the merits of the case during the hearing. Gerol held off on filing any charges, saying he still needs to determine whether Brandenburg actually destroyed the doses.
Judge Paul Malloy ordered Brandenburg to be released on a $10,000 signature bond, surrender his firearms, not work in health care and have no contact with Aurora employees.
Brandenburg's wife of eight years filed for divorce in June. The couple has two small children.
According to an affidavit his wife filed on Dec. 30, the day before Brandenburg was arrested in the vaccine tampering, he stopped off at her house on Dec. 6 and dropped off a water purifier and two 30-day supplies of food, telling her that the world was “crashing down” and she was in denial. He said the government was planning cyberattacks and was going to shut down the power grid.
She added that he was storing food in bulk along with guns in rental units and she no longer felt safe around him. A court commissioner on Monday found that Brandenburg’s children were in imminent danger and temporarily prohibited them from staying with him.
Online court records indicate Brandenburg’s divorce attorney withdrew from the case on Dec. 28.
Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.
This story was first published on Jan. 4, 2021. It was updated on Jan. 5, 2021 to correct that Brandenburg was arrested Dec. 31, not Dec. 30. The story was earlier corrected to show that Brandenburg was released on a $10,000 signature bond.