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made good on last week's earnings forecast Thursday, posting first-quarter earnings that topped analysts estimates and guiding its second quarter toward the high end of expectations.

The drug company, whose sales and earnings fell from a year ago due to the controversy surrounding its Vioxx painkiller, also issued a full-year earnings estimate that is broadly in line with forecasts.

The Whitehouse Station, N.J., pharmaceuticals giant earned $1.37 billion, or 62 cents a share, in the quarter, compared with $1.62 billion, or 73 cents a share, a year ago. Sales fell 5% from last year to $5.4 billion in the 2005 quarter. Excluding Vioxx, sales rose 8% from a year ago.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were apparently unconvinced Merck would fulfill the forecast it made April 13, when it pegged the 62-cent bottom line. Their EPS estimate remained 59 cents a share heading into Thursday's report. Analysts had also been forecasting revenue of $5.28 billion in the quarter.

The company reiterated its explanation for the first-quarter upside, saying earnings benefited from lower marketing and administrative expenses, favorable foreign currency translation and higher-than-expected revenue from a joint venture with



Merck issued relatively bullish guidance Thursday, putting second-quarter earnings at 60 cents to 64 cents a share. Analysts had been forecasting 61 cents a share. For the full year, Merck put earnings at $2.44 to $2.52 a share. Analysts surveyed by First Call had been expecting $2.48 a share.

Sales of Merck's biggest drugs had a mixed performance in the first quarter. Cholesterol blockbuster Zocor saw revenue slip 15% from a year ago to $1.1 billion, reflecting the emergence of competition in the statin market.

Asthma treatment Singulair did $735 million in revenue, up 18% from a year ago, while its blood pressure treatment's Cozaar and Hyzaar totaled $719 million, up 14% from a year ago. Fosamax, for osteoporosis, posted revenue of $772 million in the quarter, up 2% from a year ago.

Merck also updated the number of lawsuits it faces of Vioxx, the pain-reliever that was pulled from the market last fall. As of March 31, the company faced 2,300 lawsuits from about 4,600 plaintiff groups alleging personal injuries, and 225 putative class actions alleging injury or economic loss, or both.