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Merck (MRK - Analyst Report) recently announced that a planned interim review of data from the IMPROVE-IT study, which is evaluating Vytorin (ezetimibe/simvastatin), has been conducted by the study’s Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB). The DSMB has recommended that the study should continue. No further interim analyses are planned for the time-being.

Merck’s Vytorin has been seeing a decline in sales over the past few years with issues raised in the ENHANCE trial having an adverse impact on Vytorin sales. Results from the ENHANCE trial were announced in Jan 2008. Results showed that while Vytorin lowered bad cholesterol more than Zocor, it failed to achieve a significant difference on the primary endpoint which was a change in the thickness of carotid artery walls over two years as measured by ultrasound.

Vytorin sales declined 7.2% to $1.7 billion in 2012. The IMPROVE-IT study is being conducted to provide cardiovascular outcomes data for Vytorin in patients with acute coronary syndrome. The study is currently slated to complete in Sep 2014. Positive results from this study could help revive Vytorin sales. However, we note that Vytorin could start facing generic competition from 2017.

Merck currently carries a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold). While headwinds remain in the form of the Singulair genericization, EU pricing pressure, unfavorable currency movement, US health care reform and pipeline setbacks, some of the company’s recent launches should start contributing significantly to the top line in the forthcoming quarters.

Large-cap pharma companies that currently look better-positioned include Eli Lilly (LLY - Analyst Report) and Novo Nordisk (NVO ). Both are Zacks Rank #2 (Buy) stocks. Meanwhile, QLT Inc. (QLTI - Analyst Report), a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy) stock, also looks attractive.

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