A Wisconsin pharmacist was sentenced to three years in prison on Tuesday after admitting that he tried to destroy hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccines because he falsely believed they were dangerous.
Steven Brandenburg, 46, pleaded guilty in January to 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.
“The FDA has ensured that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine meets the agency’s rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality,” Catherine Hermsen, assistant commissioner for criminal investigations for the FDA, said in a statement. “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.”
Brandenburg, who disclosed in court documents that he was a believer of conspiracies and "skeptical of vaccines," was working two night shifts as a hospital pharmacist in Grafton, north of Milwaukee, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when he removed a box of the Moderna vaccines from a freezer for several hours in order to spoil them.
On Dec. 26, some 57 people received doses of those specific vaccines. After learning what Brandenburg had done, the hospital had to throw out the affected vials, which contained more than 500 doses of the vaccine.
As part of his sentence, US District Judge Brett Ludwig also ordered Brandenburg to serve three years of supervised release and to pay nearly $84,000 in restitution to the hospital, according to the Department of Justice.
In court documents filed this month, prosecutors said it appeared the affected doses administered to patients were ultimately effective, however, Brandenburg's actions still caused harm. They wrote that several people who received the vaccines he had tampered with worried and dealt with stress for weeks.
"He took away the security of knowing I was protected from this virus," one person said, according to the documents.
Federal prosecutors had recommended that the court sentence Brandenburg to four years and three months in prison, saying in a memo that he "could have easily killed multiple people" and that his crimes deserved "substantial punishment."
In a statement Tuesday, Robert Hughes, special agent in charge of the FBI's office in Milwaukee, said Brandenburg's prison sentence sent "a clear message" that those who violate laws that protect healthcare "will be vigorously prosecuted."
Before receiving his sentence, Brandenburg said he felt “great shame” and apologized to his coworkers, his family, and the community of Grafton, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“I did not have the right to make this decision for them,” he said, according to the newspaper. “I’m tormented by it daily.”