Zeneca shares soar on back of merger rumours

SHARES in Zeneca, the pharmaceuticals giant, surged by more than 4 per cent yesterday on speculation that it was likely to link up with Astra, Sweden's largest drugs group.

Astra said yesterday that it was in talks about "restructuring" its American sales joint venture with Merck, the US group, paving the way for a strategic merger with another company.

The deal, likely to be announced next week, could see Astra paying Merck $15bn (pounds 9bn) for the 50 per cent of the joint venture it does not own. Payments are likely to be linked to future drug sales and to be spread over several years.

The agreement would remove a hurdle that has prevented other pharmaceuticals companies from linking up with Astra in the past. Under the terms of the 16-year-old deal, Merck has first refusal to sell any Astra product in the key United States market.

In March, Hakan Mogren, Astra's chief executive, publicly named Zeneca, Germany's Bayer, and Schering Plough of the US as attractive potential partners.

Astra's main attraction is the anti-ulcer drug Losec, the world's largest- selling prescription medicine. But patents on the drug begin to expire next year.

Zeneca shares rose by 110p to 2628p yesterday.

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