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Merck & Co. (MRK) posted moderately stronger-than-expected fourth quarter earnings Friday, and issued robust profit guidance for 2019, as sales of its key Keytruda cancer drug topped estimates.

Merck said non-GAAP earnings for the three months ending in December came in at $1.04 per share, up 6.1% from the same period last year and one penny ahead of the consensus Street forecast. Group sales, Merck said, rose 5% to $11 billion, just ahead of the $10.97 billion estimate. However, Keytruda sales rose 64% from last year to $2.15 billion, again beating the consensus forecast of $2.12 billion.

"Last year was a strong one for Merck marked by substantial progress on scientific and commercial fronts," said CEO Ken Frazier. "The fourth-quarter and full-year results further bolster our confidence in Merck's innovation-based strategy in which our key pillars - oncology, vaccines, animal health, and select hospital and specialty care products - are expected to drive sustainable growth over the long-term. We enter 2019 with good momentum, anticipating the many opportunities afforded by our broad and differentiated portfolio and pipeline."

Merck shares rose 2.7% to close at $76.45 on Friday, a move that extends the stock's modest three-month gain to about  4%. 

Looking into 2019, Merck said it sees non-GAAP earnings of between $4.57 and $4.72 per share on worldwide sales of between $43.2 billion and $44.7 billion, both topping estimates compiled by Refinitiv.