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Vytorin questions hurt Merck shares

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Shares of Merck and Schering-Plough plunged today to their lowest levels in years as new clinical data raised questions about their heart drugs.

The companies market the cholesterol drug Vytorin through a joint venture, but earlier this year, partial results from a clinical study showed that Vytorin was no more effective at limiting plaque buildup than Merck’s Zocor, a drug that is already available in generic form.

Full results from that trial were released Sunday. Analysts said they saw little positive news and expected sales of Vytorin and Schering-Plough’s drug Zetia to keep declining.

Vytorin is a combination of Zetia and Zocor.

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Schering-Plough shares plunged 25.8 percent to $14.45 in early trading, touching their lowest levels since August 1996.

Merck shares fell 15.6 percent to $37.59, their lowest since June 2006.

Lehman Brothers analyst Charles Butler downgraded Schering-Plough shares to "Equal Weight" from "Overweight," on the news, and cut his price target to $20 per share from $35.

He said prescriptions of Vytorin will keep falling, and because Schering-Plough relies heavily on the joint venture, he slashed his profit estimates over the next five years.

Butler said the news could increases sales of Merck’s heart drug candidate Cordaptive, meaning Merck will experience a small decline in profit. He lowered his price target to $58 per share from $65.

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