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Coronavirus concerns prompt cancellation of Facebook F8 developer conference

The cancellation of Facebook's biggest event of the year, which was set for May in San Jose, California, follows in the footsteps of Mobile World Congress.

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F8 is the latest event to get shelved amid concerns over the coronavirus. 

James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Facebook said Thursday it's canceling its F8 developer conference, the social media giant's biggest event of the year, over concerns about the novel coronavirus. The unusual move illustrates how the outbreak of COVID-19, the respiratory illness the virus causes, is impacting the world's largest tech companies. 

Facebook's mostly annual conference was scheduled to take place at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center on May 5 and 6. It is a widely anticipated Facebook event, and last year attracted more than 5,000 developers, creators and entrepreneurs from around the globe. 

"This was a tough call to make -- F8 is an incredibly important event for Facebook and it's one of our favorite ways to celebrate all of you from around the world -- but we need to prioritize the health and safety of our developer partners, employees and everyone who helps put F8 on," Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook's director of developer platforms and programs, said in a statement. 

Facebook's decision to scrub F8 follows the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, the giant mobile phone conference held in Barcelona. Concerns about the virus have affected other events, including a Facebook marketing summit and the RSA Conference, which is currently taking place in San Francisco. Facebook, along with Sony and Microsoft, has also pulled out of the upcoming Game Developers Conference. Concerns about the virus have grown so great that the IOC is weighing if it might need to cancel the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

The coronavirus, which was discovered in December in China, has killed more than 2,800 people and infected more than 82,600. 

Facebook has used F8 to announce new services such as a dating feature, a virtual reality headset and chatbots for its messaging app. Company executives have also provided a glimpse into Facebook's moonshot projects such as a brain computer interface that would allow users to type with their mind.  Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg typically delivers a keynote speech during the event, providing an opportunity for the company to explain how it is tackling problems from privacy to misinformation. Facebook has faced more scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators after revelations surfaced in 2018 that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the data from up to 87 million users without their consent. In July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a record $5 billion fine for violating consumers' privacy.

Instead of F8, Facebook said it's planning to bring developers together through locally hosted events, videos and live streamed content. Facebook didn't provide details about when these gatherings would occur, but said it would share more in the coming weeks.

The social network's decision took some developers by surprise, raising questions about whether other Silicon Valley companies will follow suit by canceling or postponing their conferences. A Google spokesman said Thursday that I/O, the company's annual developer conference, scheduled for May, is expected to go on as planned. Apple hasn't announced the dates for its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) but that event usually occurs in early June. The iPhone maker didn't respond to a request for comment. 

While some people thought Facebook was being too cautious, others said it was the right call given the health concerns about coronavirus. The World Health Organization in January declared a global health emergency over the outbreak of the virus. There's currently no vaccine to prevent the illness caused by the virus.

Vicente Hernández, the co-founder and chief technology officer of the Mexican artificial intelligence company Artificial Nerds, tweeted two sad face emojis on Thursday after he heard F8 was canceled. 

The 26-year-old has attended the conference three times and said he and his team were planning to return this year. One of his favorite parts of the event is meeting people from around the world who work with AI and other technologies. Despite the disappointment, he thinks Facebook made the correct decision. Safeguarding the health of people, he said, is "most important." 

Beyond tech events, the coronavirus has also impacted the supply of consumer electronic products, many of which are manufactured in China. Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company could see an impact from the virus, and has shut down retail operations in China as a precaution. Facebook said in February that the coronavirus would likely impact production of its Oculus virtual reality headsets. 

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report. 

Originally published Feb. 27, 10 a.m. PT.
Update, 1:40 p.m.: Adds statement from Google and comment from developer.