A hospital pharmacist who pleaded guilty to trying to spoil more than 500 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine was sentenced on Tuesday to three years in prison, federal prosecutors in Wisconsin announced.
The pharmacist, Steven R. Brandenburg, 46, was also sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay nearly $84,000 in restitution to the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., where he worked an overnight shift.
Mr. Brandenburg was “an admitted conspiracy theorist” who believed the vaccine could harm people and “change their DNA,” according to the police in Grafton, Wis. In January, he pleaded guilty to two counts of attempting to tamper with a consumer product in a way that could injure or kill someone, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
During Mr. Brandenburg’s shifts on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25, he removed a box of vials of the Moderna vaccine from a refrigerator in the pharmacy for “periods of multiple hours, intending to render that same vaccine inert or ineffective,” according to the plea agreement, which includes a description of Mr. Brandenburg’s activity based on an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Grafton Police Department.
On Dec. 26, the vials, which contained 570 doses of the vaccine, were discovered sitting outside their refrigerator. That day, 57 people received doses of the vaccine from the batch Mr. Brandenburg had attempted to spoil, according to the plea agreement. Five days after the misplaced vials were discovered, Mr. Brandenburg was arrested.
In a sentencing memo, prosecutors sought to persuade the judge to issue a longer sentence for Mr. Brandenburg, arguing that his behavior had tangible consequences for the people who received the doses that had been left unrefrigerated.
Though “it currently appears that the vaccine received by these 57 people remained effective — despite the defendant’s best efforts — the harms he caused were multifaceted and severe,” Richard G. Frohling, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, wrote in the memo.
One victim, a medical professional, expressed “lasting worry and stress” about what Mr. Brandenburg had done, and suffered an inability to focus on daily tasks, according to the memo. Another victim, a doctor, told of experiencing “fear,” “anxiety, “dread” and “significant anguish” that lasted “many weeks,” it said.
The prosecutor’s memo also described Mr. Brandenburg as a medical professional with a decade of experience who also believed in a host of conspiracy theories. “He believed that the authorities were ‘out to get him’; that Judgment Day was imminent; that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were ‘fake’; that the Earth was flat; that he was a ‘prophet’; and that vaccines were ‘of the Devil,’” Mr. Frohling wrote in the memo. He also wrote that Mr. Brandenburg believed the vaccine from Moderna was “microchipped” and would make recipients infertile.
At the sentencing in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Judge Brett H. Ludwig said he was handing down a lighter sentence because Mr. Brandenburg had no previous criminal record and had accepted responsibility for his actions and because no physical harm had come from the tampering, The Associated Press reported. At the sentencing, Mr. Brandenburg said he felt “great shame” for what he had done and apologized to his co-workers, his family and the people of Grafton, The A.P. reported.
Jason D. Baltz, a lawyer for Mr. Brandenburg, declined to comment on the sentencing.
Mr. Frohling said, “Ensuring access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines is critical to the well-being of everyone in our communities.”