An American pharmacist who allegedly destroyed hundreds of coronavirus vaccine doses last month was an "admitted conspiracy theorist" and believed in a baseless rumor about their safety, authorities have said.
Steven Brandenburg removed 57 vials of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, each containing around 10 doses, from refrigerators at the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin, in an attempt to destroy them because he believed -- wrongly -- that they were dangerous and could alter human DNA.
The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are based on mRNA technology that delivers genetic information to the human body to help produce antibodies against the coronavirus. Experts say there is no evidence at all to suggest they alter human DNA, and millions have been inoculated using these vaccines.
They require very low temperatures for storage and can be damaged or destroyed otherwise, which is what Brandenburg tried to do on two occasions, the prosecution said Monday during his first court appearance.
"His intent... was to render them inert because he'd formed this belief that they were unsafe, that the RNA method of creating these medications rendered them unsafe," Ozaukee County district attorney Adam Gerol said during the hearing.
Brandenburg had initially told hospital authorities that the vaccines were left unrefrigerated by accident, but later admitted that he removed them on purpose.
The 46-year-old also admitted on one occasion to putting the unrefrigerated vaccines back inside, which were later injected into 57 people, the hospital's operator said.
The people were notified and there is no evidence that the inert vaccines harmed them, according to the hospital's operator.
He was fired and the hospital informed the authorities, including the FBI. He was arrested on Thursday last week.
"Brandenburg, an admitted conspiracy theorist, told investigators that he believed that Covid-19 vaccine was not safe for people and could harm them and change their DNA," according to a probable cause statement from the police, released by local media.
The prosecution said his charges may be downgraded if they find the vaccines can still be used.
He also told authorities he was also under stress because of ongoing divorce proceedings with his wife, who has filed for sole custody of their two children, according to local media.
"He told me that if I didn't understand by now that... the world is crashing down around us, I am in serious denial," she said in an affidavit, according to The New York Times.
"He continued to say that the government is planning cyberattacks and plans to shut down the power grid."
Brandenburg was released on bail and ordered to surrender his firearms.
Baseless conspiracy theories about the pandemic, especially vaccines, have been rampant on social media despite efforts by tech giants to counter them.
Authorities and experts have said such misinformation poses a serious threat to the fight against the virus by promoting vaccine hesitancy and even outright rejection.