Merck soared past first-quarter expectations, helped by sales of its long-standing blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda and a new COVID-19 treatment that also topped forecasts.

The drugmaker raised its 2022 forecast Thursday after its coronavirus treatment molnupiravir brought in almost $3.2 billion in sales in the quarter.

Analysts were expecting $2.54 billion from the drug, which debuted late last year under the brand name Lagevrio.

Merck has said it expects the capsules to bring in sales of $5 billion or more this year. But analysts are starting to wonder whether all the treatment courses Merck makes will get used.

One analyst said on a Thursday call with company leaders that some data shows the treatment Paxlovid from rival Pfizer is being used much more frequently. The analyst noted that the U.S. has contracted to have 3.1 million courses of Lagevrio delivered and asked if there was a recourse for the government to return unused portions.

Chief Financial Officer Caroline Litchfield said the company expects the roughly 6.4 million treatment courses that it has delivered so far globally to be used over time, and the drugmaker remains “confident in our financials.”


She said data they have access to suggests that 500,000 people have used Lagevrio so far globally, and use has been particularly strong outside the United States.

Governments have been using and stockpiling both Lagevrio, which is also made by Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, and Paxlovid, which was shown to be more effective in clinical research, after the omicron surge of the virus filled hospitals earlier this year.

The treatments have been seen as a breakthrough in the fight to control the ongoing pandemic because they are effective and are easier for patients to use than other drugs that require injections or IV infusions.

The drugs are being used to treat patients most at risk of winding up in a hospital from the virus.

Both Lagevrio and Paxlovid must be used soon after COVID-19 symptoms appear, and U.S. President Joe Biden is pushing to expand their availability.

The treatments are free to patients in the U.S.

Not counting Lagevrio, Merck said its pharmaceutical revenue still grew 18% in the first quarter. Sales of Keytruda climbed 23% to $4.81 billion.


Overall, Merck’s profit climbed 36% to $4.31 billion.

Adjusted earnings, which exclude one-time items, totaled $2.14 per share. Total sales jumped 50% to $15.9 billion.

Analysts expected, on average, earnings of $1.83 per share on about $14.55 billion in revenue in the quarter.

The company also said Thursday it was raising and narrowing its forecast for the year. Merck now expects adjusted earnings to range between $7.24 and $7.36 per share after forecasting $7.12 to $7.27 per share in February.

Analysts expect earnings of $7.28 per share, according to FactSet.

Shares of Merck & Co. Inc., based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, climbed more than 3% to $87.38 late Thursday morning. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, of which Merck is a component, rose slightly.


Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: