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said Thursday that it stands by its previous earning statements and is comfortable with Wall Street's full year 2001 earnings estimate.

The No. 2 U.S. drugmaker said it is "comfortable" with analysts' full-year earnings estimates ranging from $3.15 to $3.25 a share. According to

First Call/Thomson Financial

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, twenty-six analysts' current consensus is $3.22 a share.

The company said it expects to spend $2.8 billion this year on research and development, a 19% increase over last year's level.

Gross margin will fall about 4 percentage points below the 44.4% rate recorded in 2000, the company said, reflecting the impact of its human pharmaceuticals business and lower margins for its Merck-Medco pharmacy benefits management business. Merck-Medco's 2001 sales are expected to range from $25 billion to $26 billion, up from $20.1 billion in 2000.

The Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based pharmaceutial gaint said it expects 2001 sales of its Vioxx arthritis medicine to range from $3 billion to $3.5 billion, up from $2.2 billion in 2000.

Sales of Vasotec, Pepcid and Mevacor, which each hold a 2000 or 2001 patent expiration, will decline to a rough total of $1.8 billion to $2 billion. The company did not provide comparable 2000 sales figures.