Police arrest Wisconsin pharmacist accused of damaging COVID-19 vaccines on purpose

An Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist who stands accused of intentionally tampering with 570 doses of COVID-19 vaccine was arrested Thursday in Wisconsin. 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the pharmacist is a resident of Grafton, Wis. Formal charges are pending, and police said they are still investigating the suspect's motive. 

While the Grafton Police Department has not released a name, the newspaper reports that Ozaukee County Jail records show a licensed pharmacist by the name of Steven Brandenburg was booked Thursday on preliminary felony charges of criminal damage to property and second-degree recklessly endangering safety. 

The Grafton-based Aurora Medical Center employee admitted to purposefully removing 57 Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vials — containing about 570 doses — from refrigeration twice, according to Jeff Bahr, MD, chief medical group officer for Advocate Aurora Health. The individual is no longer employed by the health system.

Hospital officials initially said 50 vials were left out by mistake, and subsequently discarded. Dr. Bahr shared an overview of how the system, which has dual headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill., and Milwaukee, learned of the intentional tampering during a Dec. 31 media briefing. 

Upon internal review, Aurora Medical Center leaders became increasingly suspicious of the behavior of the pharmacist responsible for removing the vials from refrigeration. The employee initially said leaving the the vials out was an inadvertent error made after accessing other items from the same refrigerator.

After multiple interviews, the employee admitted to removing the vials from refrigeration on the evenings of Dec. 24 and Dec. 26, according to Dr. Bahr. Previously, hospital officials believed the vials were only removed during the early morning of Dec. 26. Given the vaccine's 12-hour room temperature viability period, 57 team members later received the vaccine Dec. 26. However, after learning the vials were also removed Dec. 24, the vaccinations administered were rendered less effective or ineffective, Dr. Bahr said. 

The health system notified Grafton police and it became public on Dec. 30 that the vials were reportedly left out intentionally. 

"The recipients of those vaccines have been notified," Dr. Bahr said during the Dec. 31 briefing. "At this time, there is no evidence the vaccinations pose any harm to those who received them, other than being potentially less effective or ineffective."

Dr. Bahr said the system is confident only 57 vials of the vaccine were affected, and the health system is working with Moderna to determine a future vaccination strategy for the 57 employees. 

The Grafton Police Department, FBI and FDA are investigating.




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