Merck beats forecast for fourth quarter, cautious on 2013

Merck & Co Inc's quarterly results beat estimates, helped by strong sales of its Januvia diabetes drug and Gardasil vaccine against cervical cancer, but the company forecast 2013 profit at the low end of expectations.

Merck also said Friday it will not seek approval until next year for osteoporosis treatment odanacatib, a delay that Jefferies analyst Jeffrey Holford said "will disappoint many investors," and hurt shares today.

The stock fell 1.5 percent to $42.60 before the market opened.

The No. 2 U.S. drugmaker said it earned $1.4 billion, or 46 cents per share, in the fourth quarter. That compared with $1.51 billion, or 49 cents per share, in the year-earlier period, when it took charges for acquisition and restructuring expenses.

Excluding special items, Merck earned 83 cents per share. Analysts, on average, expected 81 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Global company sales fell 5 percent to $11.74 billion, hurt by generic competition for its Singulair asthma drug, but still topped Wall Street targets of $11.48 billion.

The company forecast 2013 earnings of $3.60 to $3.70 per share, excluding special items. The midpoint of that range is below analysts' estimate of $3.68 per share. The company earned $3.82 per share in 2012.

Merck, whose $6 billion-a-year Singulair lost U.S. marketing exclusivity in August, is girding for more pain from cheaper copycats. Its Maxalt migraine drug, with $600 million in annual sales, goes generic in December, and its near-blockbuster Temodar brain cancer medicine faces generics next year.

Merck said Friday it aims to seek marketing approval this year for five drugs, including suvorexant for insomnia.

It is counting on the new drugs to help cushion plunging sales of Singulair, Maxalt and Temodar.

Merck suffered a major setback in January, when an experimental cholesterol drug called Tredaptive failed to prevent heart problems and raised safety concerns. The drug, which was expected to become a big seller in the United States, was recalled in Europe following the negative study findings.

Singulair sales plunged 67 percent in the quarter to $480 million. Combined sales of diabetes drugs Januvia and Janumet rose 18 percent to $1.6 billion, fueled by growth in the United States and Japan. Sales of Gardasil jumped 61 percent to $442 million, helped by higher public sector purchases and demand in Japan and emerging markets.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Gerald E. McCormick and Jeffrey Benkoe)