posted higher first-quarter profits, bolstered by strong sales of its new hepatitis C drugs. But sales of its leading allergy medicine, Claritin, fell.

First-quarter profits rose 8% to $600 million, or 41 cents per share, compared to $564 million, or 38 cents per share, last year. Earnings matched Wall Street estimates.

Sales in the quarter reached $2.6 billion, an 11% rise over sales of $2.3 billion in the year-ago quarter. Worldwide drug sales rose 13% to $2.2 billion.

Schering-Plough's best performer was its Intron drug franchise, used to combat hepatitis C. Intron sales in the first quarter rose 71% to $556 million.

But sales of Claritin fell 8% to $659 million. Schering-Plough is moving ahead with a plan to convert Claritin to an over-the-counter medicine. Sales of its next generation allergy drug, Clarinex, totaled $85 million in the quarter.

Looking ahead, Schering-Plough reiterated previous guidance for 2002 earnings growth in the low double digits. Wall Street is expecting the drugmaker to earn $1.75 this year, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Shares of Schering-Plough closed Wednesday at $29.26, near its 52-week low of $27.69.