(PFE) - Get Report

reported Tuesday that third-quarter operating profits rose 12%, bolstered by strong drug sales.

The world's largest drug company, which is in the midst

of acquiring



, is an exception to what is expected to be a rather dismal earnings season for Big Pharma.Pfizer is the only drug company expected to post double-digit earnings growth in the third quarter.

Looking ahead, Pfizer forecast fourth-quarter and 2002earnings growth of 38% and 21%, respectively, and said its expects the Pharmacia merger to close by year's end.

New York-based Pfizer said third-quarter reported net income totaled $2.35 billion, or 38 cents per share. These earnings include accounting changes, merger related costs and other items.

Excluding these charges, Pfizer said third-quarter net income was $2.45 billion, or 39 cents per share, compared to net income of $2.18 billion, or 24 cents per share, in the third quarter last year.

Analysts were expecting Pfizer to earn 38 cents a share in the third quarter, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Third-quarter revenue grew 12% to $8.73 billion, from $7.82 billion last year. Pfizer's drug sales totaled nearly 7.1 billion, a 13% increase from sales in the year-ago quarter.

Pfizer is buying Pharmacia in part to gain full control over the Celebrex/Bextra arthritis drug franchise. Revenue from the current alliance withPharmacia rose 15% to $360 million in the third quarter.

Lipitor, the company's cholesterol fighter and top-selling drug, racked up third-quarter sales of $1.35 billion, a 19% increase from the first quarterlast year.

First-quarter sales of the impotence drug Viagra rose 15% to $256 million, while sales of the anti-depressant Zoloft rose 7% to $524 million.

In the fourth quarter, Pfizer is forecasting earnings, minus certain charges, of 47 cents per share, a penny shy of current Wall Street expectations. The company also reaffirmed 2002 earnings guidance of $1.58 a share, equal to Wall Street expectations.

Shares of Pfizer closed Tuesday at $31.79.