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NEW YORK — Merck & Co. on Tuesday named as its new CEO the executive who engineered the company’s legal strategy following the Vioxx recall, which culminated in a multibillion dollar nationwide settlement.

The promotion puts Kenneth C. Frazier in the top spot as Merck absorbs Schering-Plough. The $41 billion acquisition added a strong lineup of drugs to bolster Merck’s pipeline.

Frazier, 55, is currently Merck’s president and will become a board member as part of the promotion.

He was named president in April after working three years as head of Merck’s global pharmaceuticals and vaccines business, the company’s most lucrative unit. At the time, the move to president of the company made Frazier the most likely candidate to take over from Richard T. Clark, who was expected to retire per company policy at age 65 in March.

Clark, who was a key force behind the Schering-Plough buyout, will remain chairman of the board. He has been Merck’s CEO since 2005, and chairman since 2007.

Frazier’s promotion completes an upward arc for the man credited with steering Merck through a storm of potentially debilitating costs as lawsuits over the painkiller Vioxx. The drug was pulled from the market in 2004 because of concerns it doubled the risk of heart attack, stroke and death.

As Merck’s general counsel, Frazier had initially fought the lawsuits. Victories in early trials helped the company develop a settlement deal for nearly all the cases for a total of $4.85 billion — well below what analysts had estimated as Merck’s liability.

As head of Merck’s Global Human Health unit, Frazier helped drive the growth of new products and a late-stage research and development pipeline.

Frazier, who will be one of the most high-profile black CEOs in the U.S., told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he is looking forward to focusing on the company’s pipeline of potential drugs, which include the cholesterol treatment anacetrapib. That drug is a potential game-changer in the market, but it still has years to go in development.

“For the entire industry, the challenge will be continuing to innovate going forward,” he said.

That focus on the future was a key reason for the company’s buyout of Schering-Plough, which gave Merck the allergy drugs Nasonex and Clarinex along with animal health products, consumer health products, and a biotech division. Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., is the world’s second-biggest drugmaker by revenue.

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Outgoing CEO Clark said the integration is “truly exceeding” expectations at the company.

Merck reported third-quarter results last month. Financially, the company met Wall Street’s quarterly expectations, after adjusting for a series of charges. Its revenue for the period surged 84 percent because of the addition of Schering-Plough products. Merck’s top seller, the asthma and allergy drug Singulair, gained 12 percent to reach just under $1.22 billion.

The push to drive sales of current treatments and build for the future occurs as the company faces generic competition on other products. Sales of the blood pressure drugs Cozaar and Hyzaar fell 51 percent combined during the most recent period because of generic competition, driving overall prescription drug sales lower.

The sales drive includes continuing to tap into emerging markets such as China, India, and Russia, as revenue levels off in the U.S. and Europe.
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