MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin pharmacist accused of trying to spoil dozens of vials of COVID-19 vaccine is facing 20 years in prison after he agreed Tuesday to plead guilty in federal court, prosecutors said.
Steven Brandenburg, 46, of Grafton, is charged with two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products, which is described in the plea deal as showing ”reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of death or bodily injury."
Brandenburg faces a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine on each count. He had originally been charged with attempted misdemeanor property damage but prosecutors warned more serious charges could follow if tests showed the doses were ruined.
Authorities declined to comment beyond a press release announcing the charges.
“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,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division said in a statement.
Jason Baltz, Brandenburg’s attorney, declined to comment Tuesday to The Associated Press.
Police arrested Brandenburg on Dec. 31 as part of an investigation into how 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine were left for hours outside a refrigerator at Advocate Aurora Health in Grafton, a Milwaukee suburb. The vials contained enough vaccine to inoculate more than 500 people.
Detectives wrote in court documents that Brandenburg is an admitted conspiracy theorist who believed the vaccine would mutate recipients’ DNA. Experts have said there’s no truth to the claims that COVID-19 vaccines can genetically modify humans.
According to a criminal complaint, Brandenburg told a detective that he removed the vials from the refrigerator for three hours on Dec. 24, then replaced them. The next day he took the vials out of the refrigerator again. This time he left them out for nine hours, thinking the vaccine would be rendered ineffective if it wasn’t refrigerated for 12 hours. But he said a pharmacy technician found the vials and put them back in the refrigerator.
Adam Gerol, Ozaukee County District Attorney said in a statement it “was necessary to bring an appropriate level of prosecution and punishment to this case” in federal court and “the facts of this incident simply didn’t fit a charge provided for by Wisconsin law.”
A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled