Pharmacist who tried to ruin Covid vaccine doses is a conspiracy theorist
A Wisconsin pharmacist convinced the world was “crashing down” told police he tried to ruin hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine, because he believed the shots would mutate people’s DNA, according to court documents released now.
Police in Grafton, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, arrested Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist Steven Brandenburg last week, following an investigation into 57 spoiled vials of the Moderna vaccine, which officials say contained enough doses for more than 500 people. The 46-year-old left the vials unrefrigerated.
“He’d formed this belief they were unsafe,” Ozaukee county district attorney Adam Gerol said in a virtual hearing. He added that Brandenburg was upset because he and his wife are divorcing. An Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice. Charges are pending.
Misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines has surged online with false claims circulating on everything from the vaccines’ ingredients to possible side-effects.
One of the earliest false claims suggested that the vaccines could alter DNA. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as well as the Moderna vaccine rely on messenger RNA or mRNA, which is a fairly new technology used in vaccines that experts have been working on for years.
Such vaccines help train the immune system to identify the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus and create an immune response. Experts have said there is no truth to the claims that the vaccines can genetically modify humans.
Jeff Bahr, the Advocate Aurora Health Care chief medical group officer, has said Brandenburg admitted that he deliberately removed the vials from refrigeration at the Grafton medical center overnight on 24 December into 25 December, returned them, then left them out again on the night of 25 December into Saturday.
A pharmacy technician discovered the vials outside the refrigerator on 26 December.
Brandenburg’s attorney, Jason Baltz, did not speak on the merits of the case during the hearing. Gerol held off on filing any charges, saying he still needed to determine whether Brandenburg actually destroyed the doses.
Judge Paul Malloy ordered Brandenburg held on a $10,000 signature bond on the condition that he surrender his firearms, not work in healthcare and have no contact with Aurora employees.
Brandenburg is in the process of divorcing his wife of eight years. The couple has two small children.
According to an affidavit Brandenburg’s wife filed, he visited her on 6 December and dropped off a water purifier and two 30-day supplies of food, telling her the world was “crashing down”.
He had also said the government was planning cyber-attacks and was going to shut down the power grid.
She added that he was storing food in bulk along with guns in rental units and she no longer felt safe around him.
The incident was one of many significant hiccups in the US distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, which has been affected by everything from political polarization to a fractured healthcare system.
But as misinformation and supply chain issues abound, the virus is only strengthening its hold. There were 210,479 new cases in the US on Monday, and more than 2,000 deaths. Health systems are breaking under the pressure, with a record number of more than 128,000 people hospitalized, according to Johns Hopkins data.
The US death toll is approaching 354,000.
Last month, the Trump administration promised that at least 20 million people would be vaccinated by 1 January. So far, only around 4.6 million people have received their first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, with second doses starting to be administered on Tuesday.
The rocky rollout has been susceptible to local disruption. One pharmacist at a Giant Food store in Washington DC, for example, gave “extra” doses of the vaccine to two shoppers happening to walk by, neither of whom were essential workers or elderly. Other pharmacists have reportedly been throwing out extra liquid in vials which could be used to inoculate more people, according to the Daily Beast.
In some health systems, people have been accused of jumping the line, low-risk workers getting the vaccine before those on the front line.
California, where Los Angeles has seen a huge spike in cases, is trying to execute the massive immunization campaign “with a sense of urgency that is required of this moment and the urgency that people demand”. But so far only about 1% of 40 million residents have been vaccinated, Governor Gavin Newsom said.
The 454,000 doses of vaccine that have been administered in California represent just a third of the more than nearly 1.3m received by the state so far, according to the California Department of Public Health.
US surgeon general Jerome Adams has defended the vaccine rollout, saying 20m doses had been delivered, if not allocated.
“We have to understand that it occurred over the holidays and people in health departments and in hospitals take holiday breaks too,” he said, pointing to 500,000 people being vaccinated every day.
But Republicans are also dealing with an anti-science agenda within their own party, which has made many Trump followers hesitant to take the vaccine despite a push from the president. One poll found Republicans four times more likely not to get the vaccine than Democrats, partly because of a surge in online misinformation.
So far, the federal government has dismissed suggestions it should ramp up its vaccine rollout by administering just one dose to more Americans, as the UK has decided to do.
The U.S. has hit a grim milestone on the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration: 400,000 deaths from Covid-19, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The staggering toll comes amid a struggling national vaccination effort that has resulted in just 12.3 million shots administered — well below the Trump administration’s goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020. Biden, meanwhile, has set an ambitious target of 100 million shots by the end of his first 100 days in office.
Wednesday, pro-Trump rioters stormed into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, many in that crowd attended a rally put on by the president and stood around outside the Capitol. Many videos and photos of the people at the Capitol have surfaced, often showing people without masks or face coverings and standing in close proximity to others who were also maskless. Some health experts think this riot could be a superspreader event for COVID-19.
Under pressure to contain an avalanche of falsehoods, Facebook announced on 3 December that it would ban debunked claims about the safety and efficacy of vaccines now being distributed worldwide. The company said it removed more than 12m pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram between March and October, and that it worked with factcheckers to place labels on 167 million more pieces of content over the same period.
“Harry Potter” actress Jessie Cave posted a photo Tuesday of her 3-month-old son in the hospital, saying he tested positive for COVID-19.