A Wisconsin pharmacist told police he tried to ruin hundreds of doses of a coronavirus vaccine because he believed the inoculation would mutate people’s DNA, according to court papers.
Steven Brandenburg – a pharmacist at Advocate Aurora Health, a healthcare system serving eastern Wisconsin – told police he believed the world was “crashing down” after he was arrested last week in the village of Grafton following an investigation into 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, according to court documents.
Authorities say the vials contained enough vaccines for 500 people.
In a virtual hearing on Monday, Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said Brandenburg had “formed this belief they were unsafe”. He added that the pharmacist was upset because he and his wife are divorcing and a colleague had said Brandenburg had twice brought a gun to work.
In court documents, a detective said that Bradenburg 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.
The incident comes as the United States grapples with a continued surge in coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalisations. To date, over 20.9 million infections have been confirmed with 355,000 deaths, the highest in both metrics of any country. A newly emerged variant of the virus, which appears to be more contagious, has also recently been confirmed in several states.
It also comes as the US vaccine roll-out has progressed more slowly than planned. Officials had hoped to have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of 2020, but that number was just over four million by January 1. President Donald Trump has blamed the delay on state governments, while federal health officials have said the rate is expected to pick up in January.
The roll-out has also seen a surge in online vaccine misinformation, with one false claim saying that the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines can alter DNA. Both vaccines employ a new technology in which synthetic messenger RNA trains the body’s immune system to reject the virus.
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 centre overnight on December 24 before returning them to the cold. He then left the vials out again on the night of December 25 into Saturday. Both vaccines must remain in specific refrigerated conditions to stay viable.
A pharmacy technician later discovered the vials outside the refrigerator on December 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.
Bahr said the doses people received December 26 are all but useless, however, District Attorney Gerol said during the hearing that the vials were actually retained and Moderna would need to test the doses to make sure they are ineffective before he can file charges.
Judge Paul Malloy ordered Brandenburg to be released on a $10,000 signature bond, surrender his firearms, not work in healthcare and have no contact with Aurora employees.
According to a December 30 affidavit filed by Brandenburg’s wife, the day before he was arrested in the vaccine tampering, he stopped at her house to drop 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.