Telecoms and phone conference Mobile World Congress (MWC) plans to resume an in-person event this June, despite an ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than two million.
The company expects around 50,000 people to travel to Barcelona to mingle during one of the first major Covid-19 conferences. Last year's MWC was due to take place just as the world was coming to terms with the virus, and was canceled at the last minute after sponsors pulled out.
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MWC is the creation of The GSM Association, an industry organization that represents mobile network operators around the world.
Its Barcelona conference will be smaller than its last pre-pandemic event, which saw 110,000 visitors. It will also require a negative Covid-19 test result within 72 hours (although it's not clear how this will be checked), and the venue will have non-mandatory testing. Masks will be required, and the company claims it will try to maintain a level of social distancing and event hygiene for the indoor conference.
Vaccinations will not be mandatory. “Our view is it would be great if the world was vaccinated, but we can’t rely on that in 2021 so instead we’re relying on testing upfront to ensure our bubble isn’t just the Fira Gran Via but the whole of Barcelona," GSMA Limited CEO John Hoffman told the company's own publication, Mobile World Live.
Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review reported on a much smaller event hosted by Singularity University's Peter Diamandis in San Francisco on January 24. The 84-person event took similar precautions, with mandatory negative tests ahead of the conference.
At least 24 people, including Diamandis, caught Covid-19 after the event. Including family members of attendees, that number is thought to be much higher. “Listen, I screwed up here," Diamandis said.
Covid-19 testing is not perfect, with the virus having to incubate for several days before it is detectable. Bottlenecks, outsourcing issues, and excessive demand have also left testing centers struggling, leading to delays and errors. Psychologists also warn that receiving a test can lead to individuals taking fewer precautions, as they believe they do not have the virus.
Conferences, where thousands of people from different regions and bubbles interact, can become superspreader events. Last December, 1.9 percent of all US Covid cases were traced to a two-day conference in Boston back in February.
Just 175 biotech executives attended that event, leading to as many as 300,000 coronavirus cases by the end of the year - as well as an unknown number in other countries.
The international nature of conferences also is cause for concern amongst epidemiologists. New variants such as those found in the UK and South Africa have a higher infection rate, and may be harder for current vaccines to stop. At a major conference with tens of thousands of people, a new variant could be transported across the world in one fell swoop.
Spain, set to host the upcoming MWC event, is currently in a state of national emergency. It hopes to lift that by May, but the situation is unpredictable. The country, which saw over three million infections and more than 65,000 deaths, experienced its biggest weekend rise in cases on February 8 - but cases have since begun to decline due to stringent lockdowns, including a national curfew.
Foreign travelers face restrictions depending on where they travel from. Most of the EU, Australia, China, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, Thailand, and Uruguay can enter without undergoing quarantine.
Visits from the UK, Brazil and South Africa are restricted until at least March 2, except for Spanish nationals and residents. Border travel to and from Portugal is heavily restricted.
Travel from other countries, including the US, is currently not allowed, without special permission from the government.
The Mobile World Congress site lists a large number of sponsors, including Cisco and BT, although it is not clear how many were carried over from last year. DCD has contacted to some of the sponsors, and Cisco told us "Cisco is in ongoing talks with the GSMA and [has] not made any final decisions yet for the event."
MWC will also run a smaller event in Shanghai next week - also in person.