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Pharmacy license suspended for Wisconsin man accused of ruining vaccine

The Wisconsin Pharmacy Examining Board took action Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 13, voting unanimously to suspend the pharmacy license of Steven Brandenburg, 46, accused of purposefully sabotaging 500+ doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at Aurora Grafton.

"He’d formed this belief they were unsafe," Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said during a virtual court hearing for Brandenburg, adding that Brandenburg was upset because he and his wife are divorcing, and an Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice.

Steven Brandenburg

Judge Paul Malloy in early January 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.

He hasn't been charged with a crime, with the Ozaukee County district attorney saying further testing needed to be done on the supposedly spoiled vials.

However, the Department of Safety and Public Services took action Wednesday.

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COVID vaccine conspiracy theories

Divorce filings paint Brandenburg as a conspiracy theorist, convinced "...the world was crashing down," and the shots would mutate people's DNA. They do not.

Dr. Ajay Sethi

"It’s really up to us, as individuals, to have the mindset and ability to discern correct information from information that’s just frankly wrong," said Dr. Ajay Sethi, UW Health professor who studies public health conspiracy theories.

Dr. Sethi said it's incumbent on the public to not be swept up into conspiracy theories to explain the hard to understand.

"It’s this natural tendency for us to default to those easy explanations for things," he said. "It’s just part of our psychology. It’s something we have to practice dealing with by looking for credible sources of information, to remove the emotion, things that we read, and to stay healthy about that."

Allegations against Brandenburg

Police in Grafton arrested Brandenburg following an investigation into the 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, which officials say contained enough doses to inoculate more than 500 people. 

A detective wrote in a probable cause statement that Brandenburg, an admitted conspiracy theorist, told investigators he intentionally tried to ruin the vaccine because it could hurt people by changing their DNA, with misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines has surged online with false claims circulating on everything from the vaccines’ ingredients to its possible side effects.

(Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

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 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.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine

Bahr said the doses people received Dec. 26 are all but useless. But Gerol said during Brandenburg's court 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 divorce filing

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.