NEW ORLEANS – More than 44,000 people have signed up for shares of a $4.85 billion settlement over the withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, a sign that the deal is on track to go forward, Merck & Co. announced Monday.

Of roughly 47,000 people who registered for the settlement earlier this year, more than 44,000 have submitted all or some of the paperwork necessary for enrollment in the deal, Merck said in a news release.

People who enrolled in the settlement by this past Friday could be eligible to receive an interim payment later this year.

Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck has said it will withdraw from the agreement unless at least 85 percent of people in different groups of claimants join in the settlement.

Those thresholds would be met – and exceed 93 percent of eligible claims in each of four key categories – if all of the more than 44,000 submissions are verified, the company said.

“We are very pleased with the large number of enrollments we are seeing and are confident that when the enrollments are verified, all 85 percent thresholds will be met and exceeded within the timeframes in the agreement,” Ted Mayer, a lawyer for Merck, said in a statement.

Andy Birchfield, one of the lead plaintiffs’ lawyers, said Monday’s enrollment figures are “extremely encouraging.”

“These numbers reflect near universal acceptance of the program,” he said. “It’s overwhelming support.”

In addition to the 44,000, another 5,000 claimants whose eligibility is less certain also have submitted paperwork for enrollment, according to Merck.

“Counting and verification is still going on,” said company spokesman Kent Jarrell. “We really can’t estimate at this point when we’ll have more information.”

Lawyers for Merck and thousands of people who blamed Vioxx for their heart attacks or strokes announced the settlement in November 2007 during a court hearing in New Orleans. The deal was expected to end an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 state and federal lawsuits.

Merck voluntarily pulled Vioxx off the market in 2004 after its own study showed the painkiller doubled the risk of heart attack when taken for at least 18 months. Vioxx accounted for $2.5 billion of Merck’s 2003 sales and an estimated 15 percent of the company’s profit that year.

Claimants must submit their medical records and other required paperwork by March 31 to be eligible for interim payments, starting in August. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have until July, at the earliest, and possibly as late as October to file claims for people who aren’t seeking partial payments.

Merck shares rose 11 cents to $44.40 in midday trading Monday.

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