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Merck 1st-quarter profit tops estimate, but revenue misses

Merck reported better-than-expected quarterly earnings, helped by sharply lower research spending and asset sales, but revenue came in slightly below expectations.

The No. 2 U.S. drugmaker said on Tuesday it earned $1.70 billion, or 57 cents per share, in the first quarter, compared with $1.59 billion, or 52 cents, in the year-earlier period.

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Excluding special items, Merck earned 88 cents per share. The average analyst expected 79 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Merck employees walk past a Merck sign in front of the company's building in Summit, New Jersey.
Kena Betancur | Getty Images
Merck employees walk past a Merck sign in front of the company's building in Summit, New Jersey.

Merck's global revenue fell 4 percent to $10.26 billion, hurt by generic competition for its Singulair treatment for allergy and asthma. Wall Street expected $10.44 billion.

Merck said it slashed its research spending by 20 percent in the quarter to $1.5 billion, as the drugmaker scrapped work on experimental medicines no longer part of its main research focus or deemed to have limited commercial potential.

The company is expected to soon announce the sale of its consumer health-care products unit. Its sales fell 4 percent to $546 million in the quarter, hurt by a shortened allergy season in North America.

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Merck reaffirmed it expects earnings this year of $3.35 to $3.53 per share, excluding special items.

What is Merck stock doing now? (Click here to track its shares following the report.)

The release comes one day after Britain's Reckitt Benckiser confirmed it was in talks to buy Merck's consumer health business, the latest asset up for grabs in a wave of pharmaceutical deals.

Read MoreMerck in final talks to sell consumer unit for nearly $14 billion

The consumer products group emerged as a front runner in the auction for the unit, best known for Coppertone sunscreen and Claritin allergy medicine, at the weekend, according to Reuters.

Germany's Bayer is also vying to buy the unit, which could fetch about $13.5 billion.

By Reuters. CNBC contributed to this report.

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