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MWC 2020 phone event canceled because of coronavirus outbreak

The world's largest mobile show is taking a break this year as many of its biggest exhibitors withdraw due to fears over the spread of coronavirus.

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MWC 2020: the show that never happened.

Matthias Oesterle/Corbis via Getty Images

Mobile World Congress 2020 is canceled. The GSMA, the organization responsible for the Barcelona event, announced Wednesday that it's calling off this year's MWC, a major event for the mobile phone industry, given the number of companies withdrawing because of the coronavirus.

"The global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for GSMA to hold the event," John Hoffman, CEO of the GSMA, said in a statement.

A week ago, LG was the first big name to announce that it would be pulling out of MWC, which had been scheduled to take place at the end of this month. In subsequent days, a who's who of tech companies, including AT&T, Facebook and Amazon, cancelled their participation in the annual event. The number of dropouts snowballed until only a handful of the event's major exhibitors remained. The companies withdrawing cited the health risk that the coronavirus posed to their employees at the show, which attracts over 100,000 attendees from around the world.

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The new coronavirus was discovered in December in Wuhan, the capital of the Chinese region of Hubei. The resulting pneumonia-like illness, now officially dubbed COVID-19, has infected more than 45,000 people and claimed more than 1,100 lives as of Wednesday. It has spread beyond China's borders to around 30 countries, including the US, Japan and Australia. Two cases have been confirmed in Spain.

The GSMA responded to the concerns of exhibitors by putting in place increasingly stringent measures, including a no-handshake policy, and encouraging people not to travel to the show from certain areas of China. But the precautions weren't enough to dissuade companies from dropping out. After multiple updates insisting MWC would go ahead as planned, the GSMA finally pulled the plug shortly after NokiaHMDDeutsche Telekom and BT added themselves to the list of dropouts.

The decision to cancel the show entirely followed a meeting Wednesday by the GSMA council. It will likely come as a blow to the GSMA, the companies that were still planning to attend and to the Barcelona region.

"The GSMA has been a victim of circumstances out of its control, and it's a huge disappointment the show will not go ahead this year," said CCS Insight Analyst Ben Wood. "MWC is an anchor event for many, and now they face the challenge of having to figure out what [is] the best way to salvage something from this difficult situation."

The biggest victims of the show's cancellation will likely be the smaller companies that were planning to attend and may have invested large amounts of money in their planning for the show, Wood said.

"The GSMA now needs to be careful that there is not a knock of effect from this year's cancellation," he said. "Major companies and many attendees will be reviewing the importance of MWC to their business, and the GSMA must work hard to have a clear path forward."

News of the cancellation was first reported by Bloomberg.