An infectious diseases expert says it will be crucial for Canberra to have COVID-19 tested for in sewage as the capital enters a winter like no other.
Over the past six weeks staff at the Australian National University have been testing sewage samples to determine if they can accurately detect coronavirus in the wastewater.
The research is ongoing because it's proven quite a difficult task in Australia - and particularly Canberra - due to the relatively low number of cases compared to overseas.
ANU infectious diseases expert professor Peter Collignon is helping with the project and said he expects the samples to show negative results, but testing is still underway.
He said they will be able to achieve accurate testing soon, and when they do it will be an important tool for Australia over the coming months.
Professor Collignon said sewage has the potential to detect the virus early if a second wave begins to occur. Many countries overseas have already implemented a sewage testing program.
"Relatively it is low-cost and the big advantage is it samples the whole community," professor Collignon said.
"Once we're sure the sewage testing is getting accurate results, that we know it is detecting the virus and we're not missing it, it's got a lot of potential."
He said in Canberra the issue is if you have 10-20 cases the sewage could be so diluted you could miss those but if there's a "reasonable amount of transmission in the community" that will be picked up.
While he doesn't think Australia will get a big second wave of COVID-19 infections, winter will have an impact on the number of cases. Professor Collignon said he thinks there could be 200-300 new cases each week in Australia during winter.
"Winter is coming. I hope I'm wrong, I would like to emphasise that I hope I'm wrong, but every respiratory virus transmits more in winter," he said.
"I feel strongly that we need this up and running for Canberra. I think we need this up and running for our winter in every capital city and it would be nice if we had it in the regions as well."
Professor Collignon said places like the Snowy Mountains could do with a testing regime given the number of people who will be visiting and the nature of the accommodation.
"It's more risky indoors, so bars, pubs, ski lodges are more of a risk," he said.
"And you can see why, because people are together indoors, ventilation is less than normal because it is cold and you don't want to waste the heat."
He said if people are consuming alcohol they will be less likely to obey the 1.5-metre social distancing rule.
But it all depends on successful results and following that, the allocation of funding and resources.
Professor Collignon said he understands it needs to be shown to be successful in order to be funded.
"I can't see why it won't be successful but it won't be sustainable long-term without funding for it," he said.
"This needs to be an ongoing, publicly reported test for everyone to see."
Water Research Australia project manager for the sewage surveillance project Dr Daniel Deere said most states and territories are either already using sewage surveillance for COVID-19 or have a plan in place to do so in the near future if needed.
Dr Deere said "it's a bit like having a tool in the toolbox" to bring out when each area needs it.
He said the idea is to use it when health departments need a result quickly from the whole community, rather than testing the whole community clinically.
"It is the sort of thing where you have an ongoing baseline program and if you do start finding it, that could give you early warning of a second wave before you see it in people come to doctors and things like that," Dr Deere said.
He said sewage has been used for 75 years to track diseases and there are "sentinel sites" that are routinely tested for a whole range of things.
"Most of the diseases are so mild it's not done for any public health priority," he said.
"The last deadly one was polio. Polio was the last disease outbreak that it was used for that was a really severe illness. We're eradicated polio in Australia but we still test for polio in sewage [as part of the Global Polio Eradication Program]."