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NEW YORK: Merck is entering a new era, with sweeping changes across its executive suite and the spinoff off its women’s health and other businesses, a bid to enable both resulting companies to grow faster.

The massive management makeover, mostly triggered by longtime Chief Executive Ken Frazier’s upcoming retirement, occurs as the drugmaker says hits to sales of many of its medicines amid lockdowns and other impacts from the coronavirus pandemic will lessen and sales will rise over the rest of the year.

Frazier, who has run Merck & Co since January 2011, oversaw a quadrupling of revenue and Merck’s emergence as a powerhouse in cancer drugs over the decade.

Now 66 and the only Black CEO of a major drugmaker, Frazier will retire on June 30, causing a domino effect of job changes. He’ll be succeeded by Chief Financial Officer Rob Davis, who will be replaced by company treasurer Caroline Litchfield. Her replacement hasn’t been named yet.

Michael Nally, head of marketing for Merck’s huge prescription drug business and a candidate to replace Frazier, departed last month. The chief commercial officer for that business, Frank Clyburn, will become its president and lead both commercial strategy and marketing.

And in January, Dr Dean Li became head of Merck’s highly regarded research labs, taking over for now-retired Roger Perlmutter.

On Thursday, Merck reported its first-quarter profit dipped 1 per cent as people continued to put off doctor and hospital visits early this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it spent more on research and production.

While it fell short of Wall Street profit expectations, Merck maintained its profit forecast for the year.

The drugmaker said it’s focusing its efforts on fighting the pandemic on two fronts: its experimental COVID-19 treatment molnupiravir and helping to manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine under a recent deal. That partnership follows the failure of two experimental vaccines that Merck dropped after early results showed they weren’t very effective.

Merck plans to soon begin late-stage testing of molnupiravir, a pill meant for treating outpatients to prevent hospitalisations. The company, based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, also is evaluating the drug’s potential for preventing infection in people recently exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

The maker of cancer blockbuster Keytruda and Januvia diabetes pills said net income declined to US$3.18 billion, or US$1.25 per share, from US$3.22 billion, or US$1.26 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding one-time gains and costs, adjusted earnings came to US$3.56 billion, or US$1.40 per share, far below the US$1.63 Wall Street was expecting.

Revenue totalled US$12.08 billion, up just a tad from US$12.06 billion last year.

Frazier told analysts on a conference call to discuss the results that he’s confident in Merck’s future and new leadership.

But in early trading, Merck shares fell US$13.62, or 4.7 per cent, to US$73.47.

Merck’s prescription drug sales were hurt by generic competition to several drugs, and the pandemic reduced sales of medicines used in hospitals, a key business for Merck. In addition, sales of Merck’s portfolio of vaccines for children and adults fell as the country focused on a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign at the start of the Biden administration.

Prescription drug sales were flat at US$10.68 billion. As per usual, they were led by cancer immunotherapy Keytruda, which hauled in US$3.9 billion in the quarter. Januvia and combo drug Janumet for Type 2 diabetes brought in a total of US$1.3 billion.

Veterinary medicine sales jumped 17 per cent to US$1.42 billion, mainly driven by higher sales of products for pets.

During the quarter, Merck struck a deal to partner with Gilead Sciences in developing long-acting HIV treatments that combine two drugs the companies discovered. And on April 1, Merck completed the acquisition of Pandion Therapeutics, a developer of therapies for autoimmune disorders, an area where Merck hopes to expand.

Merck expects adjusted earnings per share for 2021 of US$6.48 to US$6.68, unchanged from forecasts in January. It expects revenue for the year to grow 8 per cent to 10 per cent, to a range of US$51.8 billion and US$53.8 billion, also the same as its last forecast.

Merck plans on Jun 2 to complete the spinoff of its Organon women’s health business, which will now also include off-patent former blockbusters like respiratory drugs Singulair and Nasonex, plus Merck’s unit that makes biosimilars, or near-copies of pricey biologic drugs.

If the spinoff happens by then, Merck plans to update its financial forecasts.

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