Police on Thursday announced the arrest of a former employee of Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin, who is accused of tampering with 570 COVID-19 vaccine doses.
Officials did not name the ex-employee, a pharmacist, who was terminated Wednesday after allegedly admitting to deliberately removing 57 vials of the COVID-19 vaccine from a refrigerator, and later returning them.
But a roster of inmates at the Ozaukee County Jail showed that a Steven Brandenburg had been booked Thursday on charges of criminal damage to property and endangering safety, both of which police say the pharmacist in question is facing.
Brandenburg is also listed as a licensed pharmacist in state records.
The removed doses, which may have been weakened outside refrigeration, were given to 57 people before the error became apparent, officials said. The people who took the affected doses have been notified, and there is no indication that they were harmed, hospital officials said in a Thursday press conference.
In a press release, Grafton Police said the pharmacist “intentionally removed the vaccines from the refrigerated storage and left them to sit out overnight, rendering about 570 doses of the vaccine ‘useless’ according to health officials.” The former employee is said to have told investigators that he “knew the spoiled vaccinations would be useless and that people who received the vaccinations would think they had been vaccinated against the virus when in fact they were not.”
Police are investigating the former pharmacist’s motive, and have not yet filed charges against him. He is currently being held on recommended charges of first degree recklessly endangering safety, adulterating a prescription drug, and criminal damage to property, all of which are felonies.
The Aurora Health Care Medical Group is communicating with the vaccine manufacturer Moderna to determine the effect the lack of refrigeration might have on the vaccines' potency.
The hospital system in the COVID-wracked state first revealed that 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine had been left out of a refrigerator for more than 12 hours on Dec. 26. At the time, Aurora described it as the product of “unintended human error,” indicating an employee had removed the vaccines to reach something else in the fridge.
But on Wednesday evening, the hospital changed its story, indicating that a further review pointed to “intentional” destruction and that the employee was fired.
The Moderna vaccine can only survive for up to 12 hours outside of refrigeration, though it does not need the same level of cold storage as the Pfizer vaccine.
The allegation of deliberate sabotage comes as Wisconsin remains deep in the throes of a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak—and after state and federal officials expressed fears that vandals and anti-vaxxers might target doses.
Local police, as well as the FBI and Food and Drug Administration, reportedly assisted with the investigation. The FDA and FBI declined to comment on their involvement.