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Merck tops 1st quarter outlook estimates, raises 2007 forecast

TRENTON, N.J. — Merck & Co. on Wednesday forecast a healthy first-quarter profit well above analysts’ expectations for the recovering drugmaker and boosted its profit for all of 2007, citing strong revenues in the current quarter.

The news helped push up shares 98 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $44.16 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, amid a market rally.

The Whitehouse Station-based company said it expects to post first-quarter earnings per share of 58 cents to 64 cents, or 63 cents to 67 cents excluding restructuring charges. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial on average were expecting only 60 cents, excluding charges.

Merck, the maker of osteoporosis treatment Fosamax and Singulair for asthma and allergies, also said it expects earnings per share of $2.55 to $2.65 for the full year, excluding restructuring charges. That’s up from its Jan. 30 forecast of $2.51 to $2.59 per share, excluding 10 to 15 cents worth of restructuring charges. Analysts were anticipating a profit of $2.62, excluding charges.

The company had not provided a prior first-quarter forecast on Jan. 30, and didn’t issue forecasts in the third or fourth quarter, because of uncertainties about sales trends and other factors.

Merck got an impressive five new vaccines and other medicines approved last year, but lost most of the revenue from its top-selling drug, cholesterol fighter Zocor. Zocor, which had $4.4 billion in sales in 2005, lost patent protection last June and faces increasing generic competition.

“There are a number of medicines and vaccines across our product portfolio that are showing very positive early trends,” company spokeswoman Amy Rose said Wednesday, adding that those included both existing products and newer ones.

The newer medicines include Januvia, a new type of diabetes drug, and widely publicized Gardasil, the first vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

Gardasil has been in the news in recent weeks amid reports that Merck had been lobbying states to pass laws requiring sixth-grade girls to have the vaccine to attend school — a campaign the company suspended last week under pressure from medical and parents groups. In addition, Gardasil’s high price, $360 wholesale for the three required doses, has limited the number of doctors stocking it.

Meanwhile, U.S. regulators were requiring additional research before they would approve a prospective competitor for Januvia, a drug called Galvus, according to its maker, Novartis SA.

Some analysts upgraded ratings for Merck stock on Monday, citing that news and strong Gardasil sails.

Merck is slated to announce its first-quarter results on April 19.