Anyone who invested $10,000 in Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) at the beginning of 2020 and didn't sell saw that investment climb to more than $59,000 as of today, a 490% gain. But that number hides an important lesson: Reviewing the information that existed, and when it was available, can help explain those profits, and how they might be achievable again in the future.

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In December 2018, Moderna went public at a valuation of $7.5 billion in what was the largest biotech IPO in history. The company had only one program in phase 2 trials, and many of its drugs were vaccines, considered less desirable by investors because of low profit margins.

On Jan. 1, 2020, a year after the IPO and eight weeks before the first reported COVID death in the U.S., the stock was up 5% from its initial offering price, and Moderna still didn't have a program beyond phase 2. Not only did the market not catch on in the next several weeks, but shares also fell a few percentage points through the first three weeks of February despite the Jan. 23 announcement that the company had received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

Subsequent announcements that it shipped the first dose for a phase 1 study on Feb. 24, received almost $500 million in government funding on April 16, and ultimately demonstrated 94% efficacy in preventing COVID-19 on Nov. 30, have fueled Moderna's stock price in the months since.

If you didn't buy Moderna stock and realize nearly 500% gains, you aren't alone. But looking back does offer a valuable lesson. For a month after funding from CEPI was announced, the market shrugged and the stock went nowhere. Rather than waiting to follow other investors rushing into a rising stock, an investor who learned about the company and monitored the news had weeks to make that early purchase and realize big gains. No one has a crystal ball, but a little homework and attention can often look like clairvoyance in hindsight.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.