Former pharmacist who tried to spoil COVID-19 vaccine doses sentenced to prison

A former Wisconsin pharmacist who purposely sabotaged hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine doses last year was sentenced to three years in prison on Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced.

Steven Brandenburg, 46, was also sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $83,800 to the hospital where he previously worked.

In January, Brandenburg pleaded guilty 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."

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“The purposeful attempt to spoil vaccine doses during a national public health emergency is a serious crime,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton of the DOJ's civil division said in the statement. “The Department of Justice will continue working with its law enforcement partners to safeguard these life-saving vaccines.”

It was initially reported in December that the 50 vials of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine had been unintentionally left out for two days due to "human error." However, it was later revealed that Brandenburg had intentionally taken out the vials, which require extremely cold temperatures to remain active, because he believed they were unsafe.

According to the DOJ, 57 doses of the spoiled vaccines were administered to patients before the sabotage was discovered.

The Wisconsin Pharmacy Examining Board suspended Brandenburg's license due to the charges against him, barring him from practicing as a pharmacist.

"By illegally tampering with these doses, Brandenburg threatened the health and safety of an entire community. Today’s sentencing sends a clear message to individuals who intentionally violate these laws that they will be vigorously prosecuted," Robert Hughes, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Milwaukee field office, said in the announcement.

Michelle Blakely, president of the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., where Brandenburg worked, said in court that his actions were still affecting patients and staff members, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Staff members' confidence and self-esteem have been negatively impacted, and the patients who were injected with the sabotaged vaccines have struggled with the uncertainty of what they were inoculated with. 

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"The team is still very troubled," Blakely told the court. "This has been absolutely devastating for the organization."

Brandenburg apologized to his co-workers, family and community in a brief statement before being sentenced, the Journal Sentinel reported, saying he felt "great shame" over his actions.

“I did not have the right to make this decision for them,” Brandenburg said. “I’m tormented by it daily.”