In what feels like eons ago, but was actually just last week, reports emerged that hundreds of doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had been accidentally spoiled, as they had been left out of the refrigerator overnight. What initially sounded like a colossal blunder was subsequently identified to be a deliberate act, and Wisconsin pharmacist Steven Brandenburg was arrested. Subsequent reports and investigations into his past have revealed a frightening but unsurprising pattern – one where an “admitted conspiracy theorist” takes actions that harm others. Moreover, in leveraging his privileged position as a health professional with access to the vaccines, Brandenburg’s actions appear deliberately intended to compromise public health and our overall confidence in COVID-19 vaccination.
I’ve pieced together as many details as I could from the various news reports. Apparently Brandenburg, a licensed pharmacist at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin, removed 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine from a refrigerator and left them out all night, knowing this would render them ineffective. He also knew that these ineffective vaccines would be administered, giving recipients the belief that they were vaccinated. However, the actions were identified by another pharmacy staff member and reported. After an internal investigation where Brandenburg eventually confessed to this act, he was fired, and is now facing criminal charges. He has been released on bail.
The reports suggest a Brandenburg has history of worrying actions. He had apparently taken a gun to work, twice. In the midst of a divorce, he had recently stated the government was planning cyber-attacks and intended on shutting down the power grid. In December, he purchased a water purifier and was stockpiling food and weapons. And with respect to the COVID-19 vaccines, he had apparently embraced online conspiracy theories, and believed that they were unsafe. Based on a statement from the police:
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.
The antivaccine claim that the COVID-19 vaccine can harm your DNA is something that David Gorski discussed at this blog back in November. David pointed out that this claim goes back to Spring 2020, when we learned that Moderna’s vaccine candidate was an RNA vaccine. Admittedly, to someone with little-to-no knowledge of basic science, the idea of a vaccine containing RNA or DNA that is injected into you might sound frightening. But the actual science is both very exciting and should also reassure anyone who takes a few minutes to learn how RNA vaccines actually work. In short, mRNA from vaccines don’t enter your nucleus and therefore can’t integrate with your DNA, nor can they “change” your DNA in any way. Any health professional, like a pharmacist, should have sufficient education and cognitive ability to understand the basic science of vaccine technology well enough to know this type of claim is absurd. Moreover, a health professional who wants to know more can easily access credible medical resources that are widely used and trusted. Brandenburg, a hospital pharmacist licensed for over 20 years, would presumably have used these sources and medical references throughout his career – yet he chose to believe conspiracy theories instead of actually studying the science.
Sadly, other health professional have amplified and promoted the claim that RNA-based vaccines can affect your DNA. Dr. Carrie Madej is a Georgia-based internal medicine doctor who has actively promoted this baseless and science-absent idea. She is an anti-mask, anti-vaccine physician who believes that vaccines are “transhumanism” (a made up term). Madej was actually scheduled to speak at the “MAGA Health Freedom” rally yesterday in Washington, DC. (It sounds like she was indeed there.) Despite her medical training, she, like Branderburg, is clearly enamored with promoting baseless and absurd conspiracy theories.
Probably the most frightening aspect of these reports is that health professionals, who ought to know better, have been caught up in and are amplifying unfounded fears about vaccines. They are fomenting and promoting conspiracy-based ideas to non-health professionals with the credibility of medical credentials and a white lab coat. How much harm are these individuals causing? It’s understandable to ask if this is just the first time Branderburg has been caught acting on his conspiracy beliefs – or if there is a history of behaviors that’s gone undetected. Clearly, a health professional’s education is no guarantee or vaccine against conspiracy thinking.